• (1997) Lutosławski: orchestral music

Lutosławski: orchestral music
programme notes written for
a series of four Haydn-Lutosławski concerts
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, January 1997


Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw in 1913 and studied mathematics and music in the 1930s.  During World War II he stayed in the Polish capital and his musical activities included commencing work on his First Symphony and playing duets in cafe concerts with his fellow composer, Andrzej Panufnik.

The post-war decade in Poland was marked by the Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ which, in Lutosławski’s case, meant the banning of his symphony and virtual compulsion to write music using or imitating folk materials (Silesian Triptych, 1951) or to compose songs for ‘the masses’ (Comrade, 1952).  Nevertheless, he managed to produce the Polish masterpiece of the period, the Concerto for Orchestra (1954).  Once the post-Stalin thaw began in the mid-1950s Lutosławski, like his compatriots, was able to compose as he wished.  After his tribute to Bartók (Funeral Music, 1958), he embarked on what we now recognise as the major period of his creative output.

Change was signalled in Jeux vénitiens (1961), in which Lutosławski circumvented the performing difficulties of much contemporary avantgarde music by allowing his players a degree of rhythmic freedom (ad libitum ‘aleatory counterpoint’) while strongly controlling all other aspects of performance.  This flexibility paid enormous expressive dividends and in works such as Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), Livre pour orchestre (1968) and the Cello Concerto (1970) his rich and dramatic idiom created quite a stir in Europe and the United States and he became a significant international figure.

Lutosławski consequently began to travel extensively, increasingly conducting his own works in the restrained and precise manner which characterised his entire personality.  Among the major commissions which came his way were requests from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Les espaces du sommeil, 1975), the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Mi-parti, 1976) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No.3, 1983).  In the last fifteen years of his life, Lutosławski’s music became ever more delicate and playful (as in Chantefleurs et Chantefables, 1990) as well as tinged with a melodic romanticism (Piano Concerto, 1988, and Symphony No.4, 1992).  Six months after conducting the British premiere of the Fourth Symphony during the BBC Proms in August 1993, Lutosławski died in Warsaw, aged 81.

Lutosławski visited the UK on many occasions and enjoyed a special rapport with British musicians.  Several of the pieces being performed during these concerts in Cardiff are also being played by BBC NOW as part of the BBC’s major Lutosławski festival ‘Breaking Chains’ at the Barbican Centre, London, 17-19 January 1997.

Funeral Music

It was with this work for string orchestra that Lutosławski began to break the chains with which he had been shackled by the ‘socialist-realist’ policies of the Polish state in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  He began work on the piece after completing his Concerto for Orchestra (1954).  Alongside his Five Songs (1957), Funeral Music (1958) escapes from the restrictions of folk-oriented materials, allowing Lutosławski to explore more personal ideas.

Funeral Music is dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, whose influence may be felt throughout Lutosławski’s career.  Although Funeral Music is played without a break, it has four sub-sections: Prologue – Metamorphoses – Apogeum – Epilogue.  The outer sections concentrate on a thematic idea that has only two intervals (semitone and tritone), just as Bach did in the choral theme which opens his Mass in B minor.  This intense concentration on strongly characterised ideas was to become the touchstone for Lutosławski and here results in a powerful climax during the Prologue.  The Metamorphoses section forms the main dynamic thrust of Funeral Music, with the music gathering both activity and propulsion as it drives towards the dense chords that form the Apogeum.  The way in which Lutosławski compacts these chords towards an intense cluster prior to the Epilogue is highly sculptural and, again, anticipates his compositions of the 1960s and beyond.  Above all, Funeral Music is a deeply-felt tribute to a composer who had sustained Lutosławski’s spirit during the traumatic times of the 1940s and 50s.

Piano Concerto

Lutosławski relished the opportunity to work with artists he admired.  These included Peter Pears (Paroles tissées, 1965), Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello Concerto, 1970), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Les espaces du sommeil) and Ursula and Heinz Holliger (Double Concerto, 1980).  He took particular pleasure in working with young artists, one of whom was the Polish pianist, Krystian Zimerman.  Zimerman had won first prize in the famous Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975, and it was for Zimerman and the Salzburg Festival in 1988 that Lutosławski composed his Piano Concerto.  In keeping with Zimerman’s own concentration on 19th-century repertoire, Lutosławski’s concerto creates a post-romantic world in which several of his precursors in the genre seem to hover benevolently.

From the delicate woodwind textures of the opening, which recall Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (1916), Lutosławski weaves a sequence of musical events of bewitching subtlety and dark-hued drama.  Different sections are cued by the conductor and play ad libitum until instructed otherwise.  Lutosławski interlocks these moments with more conventionally notated music whose broad-sweeping cantilena develops considerable momentum.

After a brief climax, this leads straight into the helter-skelter of the Presto second movement, which is the concerto’s scherzo.  Towards the end of the movement, the first of the pianist’s cadenzas emerges.  The soloist also begins the slow third movement alone, musing in a solitary recitative reminiscent of the cadenza which opens the Cello Concerto.  As in the earlier work, the composer builds up a powerful confrontation between the individual (soloist) and forces which wish to oppress or deny freedom.  In some ways, this slow movement may be viewed as a pro-active, almost politicised version of the more simply poetic ‘night music’ pioneered by Bartók.

The finale is a technical tour-de-force in which several rhythmic and textural processes are separately at work.  It is a passacaglia whose increasing detail, akin to the Metamorphoses in Funeral Music, is utterly compelling as the movement is driven towards its own and the whole concerto’s climax.  It is a masterly example of Lutosławski’s sense of dramatic and musical structures.

Partita-Interlude-Chain 2

This sequence of three separate pieces has a curious history.  Lutosławski’s first version of Partita was for violin and piano and was written for Pinchas Zukerman in 1984 (it was orchestrated in 1988).  In 1985, Lutosławski wrote Chain 2, for violin and orchestra, for Anne-Sophie Mutter, to a commission from that patron saint of 20th-century composers, the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (incidentally, most of Lutosławski’s sketches and manuscripts now reside at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, along with those of other composers including Bartók and Stravinsky).  The final link in this sequence is the Interlude, which Lutosławski wrote both to connect and separate the two other pieces to make a coherent whole.

The Partita has three main movements, inspired by 18th-century partitas and suites.  The opening movement draws on the courante, the central, deeply expressive movement is an ‘Air’, while the finale is related to the gigue.  In between the three movements are two tiny sections just for violin and piano, very much as they were in the original version.  Each instrument plays separately, as if in an individual reverie, before the next movement begins.

Then comes the Interlude, a magically veiled texture (without the soloist) in which the strings are coloured by flickers of sound from elsewhere in the orchestra.  It has an extraordinarily hypnotic quality.

Chain 2, which ends the sequence, is part of a series of pieces called ‘Chain’.  These are composed in an evolutionary way, akin perhaps to the design of the Olympic rings, with one idea overlapping and intersecting with another.  There are four distinct movements.  The first sets the pace, with the soloist leading the pack.  The second is reminiscent of a vigorous dance, plunging headlong with great virtuosity.  The slow movement is much more volatile than its counterprt in the Partita, while in the finale both soloist and orchestra match each other in a display of brilliant fireworks.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables

All of Lutosławski’s major compositions for voice(s) and orchestra are settings of verse by poets writing in French.  Starting with Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), Lutosławski then found the poetry of Jean-François Chabrun for Paroles tissées (1965), and used verse by Robert Desnos for his last two vocal works, Les espaces du sommeil (1975) and this cycle of nine nonsense rhymes, Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990).  In a very real sense, Lutosławski was returning to the period of the post-war decade (as he did in several works from the mid 1980s onwards), to the time when he composed several dozen children’s songs.

This last cycle (already recorded on BIS CD 743 by Valdine Anderson and BBC NOW) is one of his most delightful and witty creations.  The orchestration is especially delicate and reminds us how important to Lutosławski was the music of Debussy and Ravel.  The imagery is precise and imaginative, with five of the songs about flowers and four about living creatures.

1.         La Belle-de-nuit (The Marvel of Peru)
2.         La Sauterelle (The Grasshopper)
3.         La Véronique (The Speedwell)
4.         L’Eglantine, l’aubépine et la glycine (The Dog Rose, the Hawthorn and the Wisteria)
5.         La Tortue (The Tortoise)
6.         La Rose (The Rose)
7.         L’Alligator (The Alligator)
8.         L’Angélique (The Angelica)
9.         Le Papillon (The Butterfly)

Symphony No.4

This symphony was Lutosławski’s last orchestral work.  It crowns a contribution to the genre which spans all the stages of his creative life.  The First Symphony was a product of the 1940s, the Second was his largest orchestral work at the time it was written (1967) and the Third rocketted into the repertory immediately after its premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti in 1983.  The Fourth Symphony was also premiered in America (by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer), but it inhabits a rather different world to its immediate predecessor.  Both are extremely powerful, but where the Third is energetically colourful and expansive, the Fourth is essentially reflective, even if it still exhibits Lutosławski’s unerring sense of symphonic drama.

The opening, with its low tolling strings and gradually emerging clarinet melody, is sombre and moving.  With characteristic and seemingly casual disregard for obvious continuities, Lutosławski interrupts the reverie as if to say that life is not that straightforward.  He thrived on dualities, building up music of symphonic dimensions through both contrast and development.  Although Lutosławski conceived this symphony, like some of his other works, as being essentially in two movements, we are perhaps more keenly aware of his other preoccupation, that of preparation and introduction preceding a more significant musical argument.  This latter section proceeds in ever increasing waves of activity, culminating in a soaring cantilena  so much a part of the composer’s thinking in his last decade.  And, with a touch of whimsy, Lutosławski signs off with a racy little coda.  Are we to take this ending as the essence of the symphony, or does its heart lie elsewhere?  Perhaps Lutosławski was a bit of a tease, even when at his most serious.

© 1997 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: