• (2013) Lutosławski, Penderecki, Kilar

Lutosławski, Penderecki, Kilar
programme note written for
Orquestra Sinfónico do Porto Casa da Musica, António Meneses (cello), cond. Antoni Wit
Casa da Musica, Porto, 2 March 2013

Penderecki: The Awakening of Jacob (1974)

The three Polish works in this programme are near contemporaries, their composition spanning the years 1970 (Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto) to 1974 (Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob and Kilar’s Krzesany). They present a snapshot of a crucial moment in post-war Polish music, when the dynamism of the ‘Polish School’ – which had emerged around 1960 as a dramatic avant-garde response to the socialist-realist suppression of creative freedom in the post-war decade – began to give way to more directly communicative idioms.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933) celebrates his eightieth birthday in November this year.  Fifty years ago, he was the figurehead for new music not only in Poland but around the world.  With works like Anaklasis (1960), Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) and Polymorphia (1962), he rewrote the vocabulary of musical sound, its notation and its performance.  Out went rhythm and metre, harmony and melody.  In came broad bands of sound, dense arhythmic clusters and extended instrumental techniques, especially for string instruments.  His music was bold and brash.  Within a few years, and controversially, Penderecki began to intertwine this highly textured music with Baroque references and religious themes, as in the St Luke Passion (1966).

In the 1970s, however, he leaned more overtly towards tradition and eventually found a home in late-nineteenth-century, post-romantic idioms.  One of the key works in this transition, but one which is unduly neglected today, is The Awakening of Jacob.  Penderecki was inspired by the Old Testament story told in Genesis 28 – ‘And Jacob awoke out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.  And he was afraid…’.  Characteristically, Penderecki focuses on the aspect of fear and dread, rather than the more benign image of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven that precedes this quote. The orchestration conjures up the atmosphere of the moment with sonorous brass chords, ethereal ocarinas and slithering strings.

Lutosławski: Cello Concerto (1969-70)

Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) maintained a more consistent musical language from 1960 onwards than most Polish composers.  More crucially, he steered clear of extramusical associations wherever he could in his instrumental music.  But it has long been hard in their history of war, occupation and repression for Polish artists to avoid interpretations of their work that tie it in to real events and contexts, past and present.  Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto is a case in point.

It was dedicated to and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich, who saw in its conflict between soloist and orchestra a paradigm of his own situation with the communist authorities in the Soviet Union.  Lutosławski rejected such programmatic connections.  A more nuanced interpretation might look instead towards Lutosławski’s non-musical interests.  He was an inveterate theatre-goer and there are distinct structural and functional elements in the Cello Concerto that connect it to ancient Greek tragedy.  Alternatively, he was a great admirer of the novels of Joseph Conrad, whose obsession with rites of passage and the transition from youth to maturity also has clear echoes in this work.  However listeners respond, there is no denying the fact that Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century music, witnessed by its repeated recordings on CD (eighteen at the present count).

The Cello Concerto begins with a solo introduction of over four minutes where repeated indifferente D naturals are intercut, as on a whim, by what Lutosławski once called ‘frolics’.  In other words, this extended solo is free of the burdens of the world.  Towards the end, the soloist begins to alter the D naturals with dynamics and grace notes.  As the composer wrote to Rostropovich: ‘It is as if the cello, forced to perform monotonous, boring repetitions, tried to diversify them and did it in a naive, silly way.  In this moment trumpets intervene to stop the cello and to shout out their ‘angry’ phrase.’

This intervention is the seed from which the rest of the concerto grows.  The next section is a series of four conversational episodes in which the cello attempts to engage with woodwind, strings and percussion.  Each time, the cello is ‘shouted down’ by the brass.  There then follows an impassioned cantilena, mainly for the soloist and the strings, and they eventually are drawn together in a powerful unison.

At this point, the main confrontation begins, the string unison interrupted by the orchestra.  The soloist mocks the orchestra by repeating the rhythm of its last phrase sotto voce as if to say (as Lutosławski told some of his soloists), “You may be physically stronger than me, but let’s wait and see who is really the stronger”.  After further trading of blows, the cello attempts an escape, with individual members of the orchestra firing musical arrows and spears at it.  The main climax is a sequence of hammering blows from which the cello emerges weeping, as if on the point of death.  With one last effort, it rises up and the concerto ends with purposeful high A naturals, a complete contrast to the seemingly insignificant D naturals with which it began.

Kilar: Krzesany (1974)

Wojciech Kilar (b.1932) was part of what Poles called the ‘sonoristic’ avant-garde of the 1960s, but his commitment to the new musical soundworld was never as wholehearted as Penderecki’s.  His Riff ’62, for example, brings a jazzy quality to sonorism.  He is perhaps best known for the hundred or so film scores he has written since the 1950s, including music for films as varied as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Roman Polański’s The Pianist (2002).  He has never been afraid to infuse his concert music with popular and cinematic idioms or, in the case of Exodus (1981), to marry a Boléro-like ostinato with the story of the defeat of the Egyptians and the successful crossing of the Red Sea.

Krzesany (Sparking Dance) was his first big success in embracing Polish folk idioms.  The fast and vigorous ‘krzesany’ is a dance indigenous to the jagged Tatra Mountains on Poland’s border with Slovakia.  It is so called because the dancers hit their heels together, hence ‘sparking’.  The premiere of Krzesany certainly caused sparks to fly at the 1974 ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival – apparently the conductor of the premiere, Jan Krenz, said to Kilar: “You have opened a window and let some fresh air into the stale room of Polish music”.  Krzesany remains one of Kilar’s most played and recorded pieces.

Kilar’s aim was to kick against the abstract trends of his colleagues, to cock a proto-postmodern snook at the avant-garde, to create a new programmatic primitivism.  Krzesany is an illustrative, rhythmically dynamic portrait of ‘mountain dwellers’ spontaneity and […] a rustic fresco’.  This rough-hewn and exuberant score still bears traces of the block textures of sonorism, but its quasi-onomatopeic glissandi, folk string-band section and whoops and yells are a far cry from either Penderecki or Lutosławski.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas


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