• Lutosławski: Orchestral Works IV (Chandos, 2013)

CHAN 5108-1Muzyka polska, volume six

Lutosławski: Orchestral Works IV
Chandos CHAN 5108 (2013)
Tasmin Little, Michael Collins, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Symphony no.1 (1941-47)
Partita (1984/88)
Chain 2 (1984-85)
Dance Preludes (1954/55)


In the sixty years of his career, Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) experienced more of his country’s turbulent twentieth-century history than most of his fellow composers.  Yet throughout the trauma of World War II, the cultural restrictions of Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ in the post-war decade, and the emergence of the Solidarity movement and its crushing under martial law in 1981, Lutosławski maintained an exceptional creative poise and measured distance from external pressures.  As he said in 1981: “Does that mean that I shut myself off in an ivory tower?  In a certain sense, yes, but I did that in order to preserve a clarity of artistic expression.”

Symphony no.1

It was common for Lutosławski to take his time over a composition. The dates of his First Symphony (1941-47) indicate that there were extreme reasons for the length of its gestation.  Unlike ‘war’ symphonies written by other Polish composers in the mid-to-late 1940s – Bolesław Woytowicz (1899-1980) and Zbigniew Turski (1908-79) among them – the symphony by Lutosławski bears no obvious traces of trying to come to terms with the horrors of the Polish experience.  On the contrary, he described the symphony in 1981 as pogodny (bright/cheerful), “because that was the idea of the composition, which was conceived in the period of independence before the war but brought into being during terrible wartime and in the far from idyllic post-war years”.

Lutosławski’s use of ‘bright’ or ‘cheerful’ is intriguing, because they are not words that spring from the lips or pens of commentators on the First Symphony.  One Polish colleague at the time called it ‘fauvist’, so wild and vibrant did it appear to the audience at its first performance, on 6 April 1948 (given by the Great Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio, conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg, to whom the symphony is dedicated).  This characteristic may have been one of the factors leading to a famous incident the following year when the Deputy Minister of Culture ‘banned’ the symphony and suggested (so it was reported) that a composer like Lutosławski should be thrown under a tram.  Despite heavy government interference in the arts, the symphony was nevertheless broadcast in 1954 in the series ‘Polish Symphonies of the Decade’ and somehow found its way into the concert hall the following year.  Lutosławski himself held a critical view: ‘I felt that I was in a cul-de-sac’.  He rarely conducted the symphony, although he did choose it to open a concert of his music, which he conducted at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival on 25 September 1993, the last time that he appeared on the concert platform in Poland.

Lutosławski’s search for ‘clarity of artistic expression’ was a lifelong quest.  In this instance, it led him to write his first large-scale orchestral work, a four-movement symphony in which he sifted through the various influences of Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Roussel and Stravinsky.  The opening theme of the first movement is one of two that he sketched before the war, and its character is robust and purposeful.  A driven quality and saturated orchestral colours give the cheerfulness a Hindemithian edge.  This sonata allegro is unusually compact, and this is emphasised by the ensuing Poco adagio, which is almost twice as long.  Its intensity too is of a different order: a clearly Bartókian opening (the horn theme of which is the second idea that had come to Lutosławski before the war) and a central section, Allegretto grazioso, that has links with Prokofiev’s march-like and parodistic idioms.  It is based on one of several dozen canons on which Lutosławski worked as exercises in the latter stages of the war.  The over-riding impression, however, is not of technical exploration but, especially in the final section, of a descent into a wracked melancholy (an anticipation of his much later cantilena style) that contradicts Lutosławski’s perception of the symphony as pogodny.

The third movement, marked Allegretto misterioso, opens with an all-chromatic line (it is not used as a serially manipulated twelve-note row) punctuated by wind instruments.  Lutosławski again develops canonic textures, before ushering in a subdued waltz that on its three appearances demonstrates his increasing assurance in exploring orchestral colour.  These subtleties contrast with the brassy jollity of the trio section.  The symphony ends with an energetic toccata that is a direct precursor of the finale of his next major orchestral work, the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54).

Dance Preludes

In his orchestral music of the first half of the 1950s, Lutosławski drew on Polish folk sources for his materials.  This was his way of dealing with political pressures.  His rapidly increasing confidence as a composer enabled him to treat such materials in distinctive and uncompromising ways.  In December 1953, while he was completing the Concerto for Orchestra, Lutosławski was asked by his publishers if he would agree to the publication of a little piece for clarinet and piano – Dance Prelude (Preludium taneczne) – that he had sent them.  By the end of 1954, Lutosławski had written four more preludes, to create a sequence of five brief pieces.  After the premiere in February 1955, Lutosławski immediately arranged Dance Preludes for clarinet and chamber orchestra (timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings).  The orchestral premiere did not take place however until June 1963, when the work was performed at the Aldeburgh Festival by Gervase de Peyer and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Lutoslawski was a meticulous collector of folk materials in the first half of the 1950s, but for him Dance Preludes was a ‘farewell to folklore’, even though he privately still explored folk tune possibilities for several more years.  To date, only two of his sources for Dance Preludes have been positively identified, from a folder of hand-copied tunes discovered in his attic after his death.  Both come from the Pomeranian region in northern Poland, south-west of Gdańsk. The main theme of the first prelude comes from Borsk and that of the second from nearby Wdzydze Tucholskiej.  It is a reasonable assumption to think that the other tunes have their source in the same area.

Dance Preludes alternates fast and slow movements.  The fast ones revel in polymetre, the solo part cutting across the orchestra (as it does near the start of the first prelude) and creating a lively ambiguity that is completely lacking in the plainer folk-derived pieces by his fellow composers.  Lutosławski also brings a certain pathos by exploiting major-minor elements, and this is particularly evident in the second prelude.  By the simplest of touches – his mantra of ‘clarity of artistic expression’ comes to mind – he matches his found sources with his own technical interests.  In the middle of the third prelude Lutosławski separates clarinet and orchestra even more daringly, each seeming to go its own way.  The texture of the fourth prelude is the most pared-down.  Its dogged bass line is a reinvention of the idea which began the third movement of the First Symphony (he was to return to this texture in 1990 at the start of Chantefables et Chantefleurs).  The finale – the original Preludium taneczne – brings the cycle to a vivacious conclusion, Lutosławski throwing in a range of orchestral counterpoints for good measure.


As his career developed in the more open environment that emerged after the socialist-realist period, Lutosławski began to receive international recognition, not least from soloists who wanted to commission new pieces.  Among these were Peter Pears (Paroles tissées), Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello Concerto), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Les espaces du sommeil) and Heinz Holliger (Double Concerto).  The creation of the two other works on this CD – Chain 2 (1984-85) and the orchestral version of Partita (1984, orchestrated 1988) – was due to Lutosławski’s admiration for another virtuoso, Anne-Sophie Mutter.  She premiered Chain 2 on 31 January 1986 with Collegium Musicum conducted by Paul Sacher (to whom it is dedicated).  While Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug had given the premiere of Partita in its first version, for violin and piano, Mutter recorded the orchestral version in 1988, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, and gave the public premiere on 10 January 1990, with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the composer again conducting.

Partita has five linked movements, with three substantial and conventionally metred ones separated by two interludes marked Ad libitum.  In the orchestral version of Partita, the interludes are still scored for violin and piano in order to retain the freedom of association that ‘ad libitum’ signifies.  The baroque implications of the title are alluded to in the rhythmic vitality of the music of the outer movements, but both harmonically and melodically the Partita belongs to the same group of compositions from the early 1980s as Symphony no.3 and Chain 1.  These pieces presented a newly relaxed, more melodic Lutosławski to the public at a time when Poland was going through considerable upheavals on its way to the establishment of democracy in 1989.

The opening Allegro giusto is akin to the eighteenth-century courante, its robust energy punctuated by hesitations and pauses, offset by a beguiling lyricism.  After striding to a climax, the music collapses in a delicate whimper.  The first interlude provides respite – the texture reduced to solo violin and piano – as the two instruments freely overlap each other.  This leads straight into the central Largo, perhaps a counterpart of the baroque ‘Air’.  This is Lutosławski in passionate cantilena mode, showing an expressive intensity that harks back as far as the slow movement of the First Symphony.  Its inexorable yearning is typical of his music from the 1980s, and it is no surprise that this is the most substantial movement.  After a brief second interlude comes the gigue-like Presto – complete with lyrical episode, an Ad libitum climax for violin and piano, and a racy coda.

Chain 2

Lutosławski’s three Chain compositions are so called because of their strategy of development through the sequential overlapping of different ideas.  In fact, chain technique may be identified in embryo as far back as the post-war decade (Dance Preludes is a good example), but here it is elevated to the role of prime structural agent.  Lutosławski, then in his seventies, was looking back at his output, and Chain 2 contains a number of retrospective gestures.  As might be expected, it also shares a few ideas with Partita.

There are four movements, the first and third of which are marked Ad libitum, while the second and fourth, marked A battuta, provide the main driving force.  The pertinence of the subtitle of Chain 2 – ‘Dialogue’ – is immediately apparent.  The soloist leads the dialogue with a succession of orchestral ideas, recalling the ‘Episodes’ movement of the Cello Concerto.  The mood ranges from the tentative to the feisty, with a dissolution of the brief climax that is one of Lutosławski’s most ethereal.

The second movement, effectively a scherzo and trio, opens with the soloist and orchestra jostling with each other in the manner of a medieval hocket.  The trio section resonates with the spirit of Lutosławski’s past, recalling the Concerto for Orchestra among other works, as well as anticipating the refined and delicate orchestration of later works such as Chantefleurs et Chantefables.  The scherzo tempo returns, but with a new element of the grotesque.

The heart of Chain 2, as in Partita, is the slow movement.  Its lyricism becomes intensely dramatic, coloured by wistful melancholy and expressive outbursts of the kind that shaped Lutosławski’s first concertante work, the Cello Concerto.  The finale is a moto perpetuo, flecked with colour and elusive motifs (more hocketting), before reaching a sustained climax, a moment of soul-searching for the violin, and the by now traditional Lutosławskian coda.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas


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