• (1981) Lutosławski: Preludes and Fugue

Witold Lutosławski: Preludes and Fugue
programme note written for
Ulster Orchestra ensemble, conducted by Adrian Thomas
Belfast, 7 March 1981 (Northern Ireland premiere)

Witold Lutosławski is the most prominent Polish composer of his generation, and his music of the last twenty years has had a pervading influence on composers throughout the world.  His early music, up to 1947, bears the hallmark of composers such as Stravinsky and Hindemith, while the years of enforced Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ saw Lutosławski surmounting the restrictions with works like the popular Concerto for Orchestra of 1954.  Since the cultural thaw in 1956, Poland has seen a remarkable burgeoning of creative talent, and Lutosławski has produced music of rare subtlety and freedom.

Preludes and Fugue for thirteen solo strings (1972), receiving its Northern Ireland premiere tonight, is a masterly and unusual example of contemporary writing for strings.  Masterly in that it is totally idiomatic, yet reveals new sonorities, unusual in that its form is variable according to the choice of preludes to be played.  Lutosławski has so designed the harmonic and instrumental beginnings and ends of the seven short overlapping preludes that any order is possible if only a selection from the seven is made.  However, when all seven are played they are performed in the given sequence.  Each has a distinct texture and character and their preludial nature looks ahead to the substantial fugue which crowns the work.

Prelude 1:
a trumpet-like figure leads to free imitative textures counterpointed by chords; tutti pizzicati give way to melancholic glissandi and a twelve-note chord which disintegrates into the linking six-note idea (as always on violins 2, 4 and 6, violas 1 and 3, and cello 1);
Prelude 2:
three unison pizzicati, a spectral scurrying with quarter-tone glissandi, becoming march-like with upper-string harmonics and ending with a sustained version of the link notes;
Prelude 3:
low string pizzicati overlaid by an expressive violin cantilena which disperses into isolated incidents (flourishes, etc.);
Prelude 4:
a sustained chorale texture gradually eroded by fortissimo interruption until a tutti combination of explosive octaves; a rebounding double-bass pizzicato initiates a plaintive descent on the six link instruments;
Prelude 5:
various transient textures counterpoint a wide-ranging double-bass solo;
Prelude 6:
the two cellos are spotlighted in this lyrical duet, with the remaining instruments creating incisive punctuation and an eventual dissolution into octave pizzicati;
Prelude 7:
broad swathes of feverish demisemiquavers sweep across the harmonic canvas, fortissimo; resolution into long sustained notes, pianissimo, and finally the music disappears in isolated notes and flourishes.

The Fugue is a contemporary view of traditional fugal practice.  Entries are by groups of instruments, each voice having a slightly different view of the idea, an effect which creates an elusive atmosphere with a characteristic harmonic and textural aura.

The opening tutti statement presents the main ‘rondo’ idea which on subsequent appearances is developed and enlivened in faster tempi.  Its lyricism acts as a relatively measured contrast between the six episodes in free ‘aleatory’ counterpoint.  These are marked cantabile (cello plus), grazioso (violins plus), lamentoso (cellos plus), misterioso (double-bass and cellos plus violas), estatico (violas and violins) and furioso (violins plus violas).  A substantial development of the initial ‘rondo’ idea leads to an increasingly complex combination of the six episodic motives marked pianissimo.

After a short ‘rondo’ explosion, Lutosławski piles up the six episodic figures, draws them together on one of the stunning unisons which come at climactic moments in the work and then parts them in contrary motion glissandi for the climax of the fugue.  Hereafter the thirteen instruments retreat in a sustained imitative cantilena as if disappearing into an infinite void.  However Lutosławski, in a work remarkable for its originality, keeps a final surprise up his sleeve with an unexpected concluding ‘rondo’ flourish.

© 1981 Adrian Thomas


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