• Górecki: Total Immersion (3 October 2015)

HMG Barbican cover 3.10.15Before you ask, no, I don’t know why there’s an arty picture of flowers next to a flipped photo of the composer.  And while I’m in a grump, I do not understand why, after I carefully vet a proof, a copy editor can introduce new errors or miss ones that I have pointed out.  Here they ranged from inserting a cack-handed and unnecessary ‘explanation’ (underlined here) into a perfectly clear statement and then not editing it properly afterwards – ‘… Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 1, which was described by its composer as a ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’ (ie a sonata in the style of a fantasia). ‘Quasi una fantasia’.’ – to giving one work the movement headings of another and failing to spot the auto-correct in ‘Lunam et Stellas in potestatem noxious’.  But these blemishes in the printed programme cannot detract from what was a terrific BBC SO ‘Total Immersion’ focus on Henryk Mikołaj Górecki last Saturday at London’s Barbican.

I am not accustomed to writing reviews, and this isn’t intended to be one, but I can’t pass the occasion by without thanking the BBC SO for providing this panorama from his earliest acknowledged work (Four Preludes for piano op. 1, 1955) to one of his posthumous pieces (Kyrie op. 83, 2005).  With only three concerts over a single afternoon and evening, it is impossible to represent all facets of a composer.  In this instance, however, there was a glaring gap between 1956 (Piano Sonata) and 1969 (Old Polish Music) – his most experimental years.  This was odd, given the day’s title – ‘Henryk Górecki: Polish Pioneer’.  When I saw the preliminary programme, I did suggest that the Silesian String Quartet might add Genesis I: Elementi (1962) to its recital of the first two string quartets, but nothing came of it. Could the BBC SO not have replaced the rather formulaic Old Polish Music with Scontri (1960) or Refrain (1965)? This cavil apart, the repertoire choices were excellent and gave the large and highly appreciative audiences much to relish.

I started off proceedings with an hour-long talk at 11.00, in which I deliberately complemented the day’s repertoire with discussion of other pieces.  I was told that the 80 people who turned up were double the number expected, and they seemed to enjoy the mix of musical and anecdotal observations.  The Silesian Quartet at 13.00 was in top form, bringing a grittiness and passion to the music that Górecki would have thoroughly appreciated.

Violetta Rotter-Kozera’s biographical film Please Find Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (2012) was screened at 15.00.  Its generally chronological progress was illuminated by archive clips and multiple interviews made in 2011 in the USA and Europe, although the English-language subtitling for the Polish interviewees occasionally left something to be desired. Consistently translating ‘utwór’ (work/piece) as ‘song’ was an irritating sign of the times, but the film is an honest portrayal and a welcome antidote to the Tony Palmer film of 1993.

The 17.30 concert was shared by the BBC Singers under David Hill and the pianist Emiko Edwards.  Edwards played the two student works with fire and understanding, both crisp and robust.  The BBC Singers were also in top form. Their Polish pronunciation was exemplary, as was their tonal and dynamic balance.  It was good to hear the complete Marian Songs (1985), although they are not the most interesting or varied of Gorecki’s a cappella pieces, but no. 21 of the recently published Church Songs (1986) was a good work with which to end the recital.

Those members of the audience who reached their seats early for the BBC SO’s own concert at 19.30 were treated to a reworking of Totus Tuus under the composer Tim Steiner.  The concert itself was the climax of the day, not least because its repertoire was almost entirely new to the audience, which reacted with enthusiasm.  As I intimated earlier, Old Polish Music is one of Gorecki’s most austere pieces, but the new Kyrie (first performed in 2014 and here being given its UK premiere), was a softer, more intimate work and makes one wonder what the rest of the mass commissioned by Pope John Paul II might have been like if Górecki had got round to completing it.  Mahan Esfahani was the cool and elegant soloist in the Harpsichord Concerto (1980), although I wished that the conductor, Antoni Wit, had not allowed even the reduced complement of strings to obscure the cross-metric subtleties of the solo part.  The final work, and the one that startled the most, was the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972).  My distant recollection of this rarely performed work (I’ve heard it live only twice before, at the Holland Festival in 1993 and later that same year in Katowice at a celebratory concert for Górecki’s 60th birthday) was revived by Wit, his two soloists (Marie Arnet and Marcus Farnsworth) and the BBC Chorus.  The symphony’s impact was palpable. As both it and the whole day demonstrated, Górecki was far more than just his Third Symphony, and those present recognised this.  Thank you, BBC SO!

You can catch the three concerts on the BBC as follows:

String Quartet no.2http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fldxd  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November)
BBC SO concert plus String Quartet no.1 in the interval: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flpnl  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November, presented by Petroc Trelawny, with Mahan Esfahani and myself)
BBC Singers and Emiko Edwards: this will be broadcast on Radio 3 during the last week of October and will then be available on iPlayer for 30 days

And here are a few links to the immediate reviews – both good and middling:

• George Hall: 3* http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/04/total-immersion-henryk-gorecki-review-bbcso
• John Allison: 4* http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/gorecki-total-immersion-barbican-review/
• Gavin Dixonhttp://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/total-immersion-henryk-g%C3%B3recki-barbican
• John-Pierre Joyce: 5* http://www.musicomh.com/classical/reviews-classical/bbc-so-wit-barbican-hall-london
• Richard Whitehousehttp://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=13157

and added to on 11 November:

• Fiona Maddockshttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/11/daniil-trifonov-royal-festival-hall-review-angela-hewitt-gorecki-total-immersion
Paul Driverhttp://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/music/article1616360.ece (first two paragraphs, the remainder subject to subscription)

My programme essay and notes may be found by clicking on this link.

• Górecki/BBC SO: One Week To Go

This day next week – Saturday 3 October – the BBC Symphony Orchestra is hosting Henryk Górecki: Polish Pioneer, its first Total Immersion day of the 2015-16 season, with the participation of the Silesian String Quartet, the BBC Singers, Mahan Esfahani, Antoni Wit and many others.  There’s a creative project on Totus Tuus and a recent film not seen before in the UK.  I’ll be introducing the film, giving the opening talk and chatting with Petroc Trelawny for the delayed broadcast of the BBC SO’s evening concert.  The recitals by the Silesian String Quartet and BBC Singers will be broadcast live on Radio 3, while the BBC SO concert goes out on the following Tuesday evening, 6 October.

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• WL100/11: ‘The Hidden Composer’

The Hidden Composer: Witold Lutosławski and Polish Radio

An exhibition first shown as part of the Breaking Chains festival,
Barbican Centre, London, 13-19 January 1997

I put this exhibition together in order to illuminate an area of Lutosławski’s life and work that had been obscured by history and largely ignored by commentators.  Lutosławski himself consistently drew a veil over it.  Yet it reveals much about the creative artist’s dilemmas at an extraordinarily difficult time.  Since 1997, other facets have come to light (I will return to them later in the series), but I have reproduced the exhibition faithfully rather than update it.  I have, however, added a few sound files which I could not incorporate at the time.  The illustrations were never of top quality, having been photocopied in Poland, but I hope that they give a flavour of the period and the publication from which they come.

Accompanying brochure

In these days of the Internet, it is hard to imagine how limited were the means of communication in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  It took, for example, until the 1950s for a full network of radio stations and masts to be established (this was, of course, before television).  Each and every technical development was celebrated in Polish Radio’s listings magazine, Radio i Świat (‘Radio and the World’).

Radio i Świat logo3Like The Radio Times in the UK, Radio i Świat was intended as a printed information service for its listeners, primarily for its broadcast programmes.  But it was much more than that.  It first appeared in 1945 and for several years included technical diagrams for those wishing to build their own wirelesses.  Its listings, at least in the early years, also included details of foreign radio programmes, such as those on the BBC Home and Light Services.

When, however, the political situation began to change in 1948, Radio i Świat changed with it.  Whereas newspapers and journals promulgated the main shifts in Party policy, a magazine like Radio i Świat reflected them in ways which have not generally been regarded as quite so significant.  Its pages, however, are often more vividly revealing and surprising than other sources in the musical detailing of this momentous post-war period.

The Hidden Composer looks at Lutosławski’s musical profile and his cultural-political context from the end of the war until the early 1960s, as through the eyes of a reader of Radio i Świat.  It is not the whole story, but it is an important part of it.

[The following summaries accompanied the six panels of the original exhibition.
You will find the full texts, images and sound files for each of these panels
either by clicking on the relevant heading below
or by scrolling the ARTICLES tab above.]

PANEL 1: 1945-48  RADIO i ŚWIAT

In the early years after the war, Radio i Świat had a generously international outlook.  Photographs from the UK, for example, included Princess Elizabeth at a BBC microphone.  But increasingly the magazine looked inwards, as did Poland as a whole.  Photographs included one of Lenin, but more frequently the front covers featured the country’s most outstanding classical musicians – Fitelberg, Palester, Bacewicz and Panufnik – as well as popular singers like Godlewska and the male vocal quartet ‘Czejanda’.  Polish Radio’s Festival of Slavonic Music in November 1947 was a signal of the post-war grouping into Eastern and Western European spheres of influence.


RiŚ 48:16Lutosławski reached the front cover of Radio i Świat in April 1948, shortly after the premiere of his First Symphony (it was banned a year later).  During the 1940s and 1950s, his most secure source of income was his work for Polish Radio.  He wrote incidental music for poetry programmes and for radio drama (some forty productions).  Early titles included Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and a children’s programme based on Kipling’s The Cat that Walked by Himself.  Prawda o Syrenach (The Truth about the Sirens, 1947) exhibits the use of jazz, while Fletnia chińska (The Chinese Flute, 1949) shows the increasing politicisation of radio broadcasting.  Lutosławski’s short cantata Warszawie-sława! (Glory to Warsaw!) is a tribute to the post-war rebuilding of the Polish capital, an undertaking that was frequently praised on the covers of Radio i Świat.


The politicisation of all public bodies came to a head culturally with the import of socialist realism (socrealizm) from Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Composers were cajoled to write for the mass of the people.  Music was subject to peer review at Polish Radio and the Composers’ Union, and Lutosławski had little choice but to accede to ‘requests’ for mass songs.  Most of these were published in Radio i Świat and broadcast on Polish Radio, where tapes of some still exist.  His least political song – Wyszłabym ja (I Would Marry) – was his most popular, and he even recorded it himself in 1950 (the tape is no longer extant).


After Stalin died, in March 1953, there was a protracted period of transition towards greater artistic freedom.  Radio i Świat reflected many of these changes.  Mass songs became less political, although two of Lutosławski’s soldiers’ songs appeared and arguable his best song – Towarzysz (Comrade) – was included in a special programme ‘Songs of the Fatherland and the Party’ as late as July 1955.  Radio i Świat also indicates that the ban on Lutosławski’s First Symphony was not as watertight nor as long-lasting as has been previously assumed (it was bropadcast in August 1954).  And, gradually, music from the ‘decadent’ West was published in the magazine, beginning with Mississippi (Ol’ Man River) in March 1954.

PANEL 5: 1956-59  NEW MUSIC

The arts played a significant part in the cultural renaissance of Poland in the mid-1950s.  Music advanced on the popular front and in the appearance of the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Contemporary Music on 1956.  Radio i Świat maintained its educational tone by publishing articles, with musical examples, on twelve-note music by Berg and Webern.  Has any other radio listings magazine ever provided such a service to its readers?  Lutosławski kept a fairly low public profile while he developed a new musical language in Five Songs (1957), Funeral Music (1958) and Jeux vénitiens (1961), works which would launch his international career.

PANEL 6: 1957-63  ‘DERWID’

Lutosławski’s compositional ties with Polish Radio continued into the 1960s, partly providing incidental music for radio dramas (such as Słowacki’s tragedy Lilla Weneda), partly writing some three dozen popular songs – foxtrots, waltzes, tangos – under the pseudonym ‘Derwid.  ‘Derwid’ is the harp-playing king in Lilla Weneda, although a different pseudonym appears on the manuscripts of the first six songs.  Lutosławski-Derwid had an evident affinity with popular idioms if the quality of these songs is anything to go by.  Among the most memorable are the Gershwinesque Zielony berecik (The Little Green Beret) and the tango Daleka podróż (Distant Journey), with its quote from Debussy’s La Mer.  Nie oczekuję dziś nikogo (I’m Not Expecting Anyone Today) was his most popular song and the only one to win ‘Radio Song of the Month’.  It was also one of some ten Derwid songs printed in the ever-informative Radio i Świat and its 1958 successor, Radio i Telewizja.


This exhibition was funded by Cardiff University of Wales and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.  Valuable assistance was also given by Polish Radio and the National Library in Warsaw and the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel.  Sincere thanks are due to a number of people without whose help and advice the exhibition would not have been possible: Urszula Kubicka, Michał Kubicki, Elżbieta Markowska and Bohdan Mazurek in Warsaw, Martina Homma in Köln, Alasdair Nicolson, Alessandro Timossi and Tomasz Walkiewicz in London, and David Hopkins, Sue House and Sue Sheridan in Cardiff.

© 1997 Adrian Thomas

• WL100/10: ‘Breaking Chains’, GSMD 1997

Possibly the most intense and wide-ranging survey of the life and works of Witold Lutosławski that has ever taken place was that at the Barbican, London, in January 1997.  The climax was three days of concerts, organised by the BBC under the banner Breaking Chains on 17-19 January.  I’ll return to these events in a future post.

Preparatory to these concerts, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in a different part of the Barbican complex, organised five days of complementary events under the Breaking Chains umbrella, 13-17 January 1997. These included concerts, workshops, talks and discussions, as well as an exhibition.  The participants included the GSMD SO and CO, student chamber ensembles and soloists, and several speakers: Steven Stucky, Józef Patkowski, Charles Bodman Rae, John Casken and myself.

WL Breaking Chains, GSMD 13-17.01.97

The GSMD Breaking Chains repertoire included: Symphonic Variations (1938), Symphony no.1 (1947),  Little Suite (1950/51), Straw Chain (1951), Silesian Triptych (1951), children’s song cycles Autumn and Spring (1951) and four other children’s songs (1953-54), Jeux vénitiens (1961), String Quartet (1964), Symphony no.2 (1967), Livre pour orchestre (1968), Variations on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra (1941/78), Novelette (1979), Chain 1 (1983), Fanfare for Louisville (1986), Prelude for GSMD (1989).  In pre-concert and afternoon events during the BBC part of Breaking Chains, GSMD students also performed Overture for Strings (1949), Five Folk Melodies (1945/52), Preludes and Fugue (1972), Partita for violin and piano (1984), songs and music for piano, as well as Chain 1 for the second time.

There were some fantastic student performances during this GSMD week.  Indeed, Symphony no.2, Novelette and Fanfare for Louisville were issued on the SOMM label (SOMMCD 219) in 1999, alongside performances of two works conducted by the composer on his visit to GSMD on 11 May 1989: Prelude for GSMD and the Cello Concerto (1970), in which the soloist was Louise Hopkins.  My strongest recollection is of the performance of the Second Symphony under the dynamic direction of Wojciech Michniewski.

Lutosławski: Symphony no.2

• Movement 1: ‘Hésitant’  

• Movement 2: ‘Direct’ (the track begins c.15″ too early with two brief events for trombones/tuba and bassoons from the end of ‘Hésitant’; ‘Direct’ begins with ppp double basses, partly masked by a final bassoon utterance)  

My own involvement also included directing a workshop performance of Jeux vénitiens and putting together an exhibition called The Hidden Composer: Witold Lutosławski and Polish Radio, of which more anon.

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