• (1987) Lutosławski: Chamber Music

Witold Lutosławski: Chamber Music
programme note written for
a concert given in the presence of Witold Lutosławski by György Pauk, Roger Vignoles and graduands of The Queen’s University of Belfast to celebrate the award to Lutosławski of an Honorary Doctorate of Music at Queen’s University on 18 December 1987
Belfast, 17 December 1987

Queen’s and the Polish Connection

WL concert programme 17.12.87Over the years, Queen’s University has developed many links with Poland, in scientific fields as well as in thre areas of literature, linguistic studies, ethnomusicology and composition.  Earlier this year, for example, the ‘Sonorities’ Festival of 20th-Century Music welcomed the young Polish composer Paweł Szymański, whose BBC commission – Partita IV for orchestra (1987) – was one of the highlights of the festival.  ‘Sonorities this year had a strong Eastern European flavour, and among the Polish pieces performed were two by Lutosławski: Little Suite for orchestra (1951) and the String Quartet (1964).

The String Quartet has been performed several times at Queen’s in recent years.  Among other Lutosławski performances in the University have been three of tonight’s pieces as well as Folk Melodies for strings (1945), Paganini Variations in the versions for two pianos (1941) and for piano and orchestra (1978), Two Nightingales for children’s vices and piano (1948), Bucolics (1952) and Preludes and Fugue (1972).

Dance Preludes (1954)

Allegro molto
Allegro giocoso
Allegro molto

Damian Frame (clarinet), Donal McCrisken (piano)

Dance Preludes is the last composition of the post-war decade in which the composer has recourse to folk-derived material.  He regarded it very much as a farewell to a dark and difficult period.  Nevertheless,its sparkle and unaffected style have justly made it one of his most popular pieces and he later arranged it first for clarinet and chamber orchestra and then for a nonet of instruments.  The two slow movements present the lyrical aspect of Lutosławski’s style of the time, with its subtle tonal inflections.  The interlocking fast movements pit the two instruments against one another, suggesting the exhilaration of a contest.  Frequently each sets off a pattern in a different metre, creating a rhythmic excitement that takes the music way beyond its folk origins.

Five Songs (1957)

texts by Kazimiera Iłłakowicz, sung in Polish

‘Morze’ (The Sea)
‘Wiatr’ (The Wind)
‘Zima’ (Winter)
‘Rycerze’ (Knights)
‘Dzwony cerkiewne’ (Church Bells)

Jacqueline Horner (mezzo-soprano), Francis King (piano)

Five Songs marks a crucial turning point in Lutosławski’s musical development.  While similarities with earlier works such as Dance Preludes may be heard in the rhythmic vivacity of the fast music (as in the second song, ‘Wiatr’), the change is more apparent in the harmonic language.  In each song, Lutosławski explores different configurations of chords, building harmonic washes using all twelve chromatic notes.  In the first song, ‘Morze’, he creates a gentle arch of thirds and fifths, while ‘Wiatr’ is a storm of tight clusters.  in ‘Zima’, on the other hand, the warmth of being inside is suggested by the major thirds and minor sixths of augmented triads.  Sometimes, as in the first song, the vocal line arises from the harmonic basis.  Elsewhere, as in the next two songs, the vocal line may be independent of the accompaniment.

The texts of Five Songs are taken fro Iłłakowicz’s early poems.  In ‘Morze’, the poet evokes the rise and fall of the sky0blue Mediterranean, down to which bird feathers float like little boats.  In ‘Wiatr’, the Wind is all set to blow down the garden fence and then to have fun and games with everything inside, including the house, until nothing is left standing.  Ticked safely indoors, the child in ‘Zima’ marvels at the gentleness and warmth of the snowflakes which, though white now, will glow violet after sunset.

The two parts of ‘Rycerze’ contrast the spirited glory of knights setting off for battle with the dejection with which the wounded soldiers and, silently behind them, their fine horses return home.  In ‘Dzwone cerkiewne’, the young poet celebrates firstly the joyful peal of church bells and then also the angry thundering of the bells at night.

Sacher Variation (1975)  first performance in Northern Ireland

John O’Kane (cello)

The Swiss conductor Paul Sacher has been responsible for the commissioning of many masterpieces of 20th-century music, not least among them Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (1937) and Lutosławski’s Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1985).  To celebrate Sacher’s 70th birthday, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (who had already commissioned Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto) asked a number of composers for contributions.  Lutosławski’s reply was this short work for solo cello.  Rostropovich gave the first performance in Zürich in May 1976.

Sacher Variation is a witty tribute, making play as it does with the dedicatee’s surname.  In musical terms, SACHER becomes E flat (Es in German) – A – C – B (H in German nomenclature) – E – D (Re in French terminology).  These six notes are interlaced with scurrying quartertone flurries until by the end the SACHER motif dominates the argument.  This is virtuoso writing and demonstrates not only how far Lutosławski’s style has travelled since the 1950s but also how his concerns for clarity and dramatic coherence have remained consistent.

Epitaph (1979)

Colin Stark (oboe), Donal McCrisken (piano)

Epitaph is dedicated to the memory of the British composer Alan Richardson, whose widow, the late Janet Craxton, gave the first performance in London in 1980 with the pianist Ian Brown.

Lutosławski releases two strongly contrasting ideas in Epitaph: a slowly rising scalic theme and a pithier scherzo in which oboe and piano set off differing motivic fragments.  At first, the two ideas alternate without a great sense of development, but the faster sections become increasingly insistent until they dissolve in a whimper.  The closing elegy develops the opening theme on the oboe against deepening piano sonorities.

Grave (1981)  first performance in Northern Ireland

John O’Kane (cello), Francis King (piano)

Grave is, like Epitaph, a tribute.  On this occasion, it is to the eminent Polish musicologist Stefan Jarociński.  Jarociński was a noted authority on the music of Debussy, and Lutosławski takes as his starting point the first four notes of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande.  These notes, which are heard again in their original form at the close of the piece, furnish the basic material for a developing web of thematic invention.  The music becomes increasingly active within a constant tempo and the pulsating interaction of the two instrumental lines is brilliantly conceived.  Contrary to the image its title might suggest, Grave is a celebration, positive and powerful.

Partita (1984)  first performance in Ireland

György Pauk (violin), Roger Vignoles (piano)

Allegro giusto
Ad libitum
Ad libitum

Partita is Lutosławski’s most substantial chamber composition since the String Quartet 20 years earlier.  It belongs to a group of works starting with the Third Symphony (1983) and continuing with Chain 1 for 14 solo instruments (1983), Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1985) and Chain 3 for orchestra (1986), works in which a leaner yet highly colourful style has emerged.

Lutosławski has composed the second and fourth movements of Partita as interludes, marked ‘ad libitum’ (a third such section, in which each player, in aleatory fashion, follows his own part without regard to the other, occurs towards the end of the final movement).  The three principal movements appear to be modelled rhythmically on the style of the late-Baroque and early-Classical keyboard partita, but the harmonic and melodic style is clearly that which marks Lutosławski’s other recent compositions.  Partita was premiered in January 1985 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug.

© 1987 Adrian Thomas


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