The Polish maestro conducts two special performances with the London Philharmonic this week - read a review of the first concert!
There is a serious danger associated with mentioning at the outset that that Stanisław Skrowaczewski is 89 years old, namely the danger of leaving the reader with a profoundly misleading impression that his longevity must be his sole, or even his most, remarkable quality. Remarkable though his Indian summer indeed is, nothing could be further from the truth. Born in what is now part of the Ukraine in October 1923, ‘Stan’ has long been associated with one of the broadest repertoires of any leading conductor; and he brings depth to breadth, as his numerous recordings of late 19th and 20th century repertoire amply demonstrate.
I first came across him on St David’s Day 1987, when he stepped in for an indisposed Klaus Tennstedt and led the London Philharmonic through a barn-storming performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, with soloists Felicity Lott and Christine Cairns and concertmaster Stephen Bryant responding with inspiration of their own. I almost wore out my cassette recording of that performance and, ever since, I have been attending this extraordinary man’s concerts whenever possible, cherishing every opportunity to watch him at work or talk to him. He is rightly celebrated too for his thoughtful, personal charm and his modesty, both of which also set him far apart from the stereotype of the ‘globe-trotting maestro’. Yet, in a technical sense, that is precisely what he is. Mention a decent band and you can be pretty confident he has worked with them – probably more than once.
Like most Polish men of his generation, he did well to survive the horrors of World War Two, but then he was confronted with another historical phenomenon that left a wretched trail of human misery and dashed hopes in its aftermath – the malignant shadow of the Soviet Union, stretching across Central Europe for two generations: ‘Poland was destroyed by communism,’ remarks Skrowaczewski sadly but without bitterness, ‘not least morally ... people didn’t work, they were destroyed’. Partly because he was mindful of the safety of his family, Skrowaczewski endured the Stalinist years of 1948-1956 in Poland and saw too the gentle thaw from 1956 at first-hand. Indeed, in May of that year he was allowed to participate in (and win) a conducting competition in Rome. The following year, he heard George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on tour in Poland. Szell befriended him, invited him to conduct in Cleveland and became something of a mentor. By 1960, the way forward was clear, and Skrowaczewski and his wife left Poland to forge new lives together in the United States, where he took up the orchestral reins in Minneapolis for 19 years.
As a Polish musician (and one who candidly and disarmingly admits he is a conductor first and a composer second, when he has the time), Skrowaczewski came from an ‘in-between’ generation, younger than Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, both of whom he knew well, but a few years older than, say, Tadeusz Baird. Although his precocious musical gifts manifested themselves in early compositions as well as technical mastery of the violin and piano, the young ‘Stan’ (or ‘Stas’ as he would then have been) always seemed destined to be a conductor, not least because of the allure the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire held for him. He is in London this week to conduct the London Philharmonic in two programmes that are close to his heart.
The second (on Friday October 26) will combine the youthful Symphony No 1 of Shostakovich (in which Skrowaczewski will eschew the composer’s ‘impossible’ metronome markings), Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1 (with Garrick Ohlsson) and the Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet in F, which he himself has orchestrated. In the first concert, on Wednesday October 24, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 (with Hilary Hahn) is paired with Bruckner’s Symphony No 7, a piece that has life-changing significance for this conductor. When he was seven, he and a friend heard some distinctive but unfamiliar music drifting out of the upstairs window of a house they passed, to dramatic effect: ‘It stays for my whole life. It was such an impression that I became really out of my mind ... My friend who was with me was terrified – he dragged me home, practically by the hand ... My father, who was a doctor, did not know what had happened ... I had a high temperature, so all this proves really deep shock – and this stays forever’. The music was Bruckner’s Symphony No 7.
When he emigrated to the United States, Skrowaczewski discovered that the works of Bruckner had enjoyed only limited exposure there. He attributes this, in part at least, to cultural politics: ‘Certain Bruckner symphonies were never played in America. The German conductors who left Germany because of Hitler played Bruckner very seldom because it was unknown and they wanted to be more popular. If they played anything, they played No 4 and No 7, period. George Szell started later to play No 8 and No 3, which he recommended to me.’ He has now recorded all 11 symphonies.
We are approaching the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth and, when I ask Skrowaczewski about his old friend, he speaks with a degree of warmth that Lutoslawski inspired again and again in those who crossed his path. The two men’s destinies really were intertwined: for one major debut after another, in Cleveland, Amsterdam, Berlin and elsewhere, Skrowaczewski has used his friend’s folk-inspired Concerto for Orchestra as a signature piece. Not everyone is a fan of the work, which Lutosławski did, after all, compose in a period when, in his words, he composed as he was able to compose, not as he wanted to compose, before the relative thaw post-1956. ‘Stan’ begs to differ and believes Lutosławski was subtly putting one over the cultural nomenklatura: ‘I introduced this piece with great success any place in the West, especially in America ... It is lovely, wonderful music and absolutely has a genial way of connecting and overcoming the Soviet insistence on writing simple music with a folk element, by being really good and serious’. He also casts light on Lutosławski’s decision to go his own way, once the cultural barriers between East and West were partially dismantled in the mid-1950s: ‘Later, when he started to make experiments with 12-tone and aleatoric music, he had to write more for himself, because he didn’t go publicly with this wave of younger composers by assimilating the new demands and pressures’.
‘Stan’ closely followed Lutosławski’s musical development post-1956 and met regularly with him outside Poland, including a memorable dinner in Vienna when they all experienced Coca Cola for the first time and during a residency at Tanglewood. He confesses, however, that his friend’s middle period, with those tone rows and substantial aleatoric sections, does not greatly appeal to him. Nonetheless, during his time at Minneapolis, he dutifully unveiled some of his old friend’s knottier excursions into the avant-garde before an indulgent audience, which gradually developed a genuine taste for contemporary music, at least within mixed programmes. When he was replaced by the more conservatively-inclined Neville Marriner and Klaus Tennstedt, life rapidly changed: ‘I received plenty of letters demanding something new, from the people who hated it at first’.
He believes Lutosławski’s valedictory Symphony No 4 is a masterpiece and tells a touching story about the short Interlude that his friend composed, in order to link two concertante works for violin and orchestra, Partita and Chain 2, to create a substantial, single work for Anne Sophie Mutter: ‘Just strings and a few woodwinds ... they don’t go above mezzo piano .... great colours and harmonies ... I love it so much, but to play it at a concert is too short, so I played it twice, because it doesn’t really end ... It doesn’t sound like a repeat, certainly not like repeating a Haydn Menuetto ... I said to Witold, “Such a simple thing, with such colour, it’s incredible”. He was always very modest and he just said, “Well, one comes to it after all that life of struggle”.’
Many music lovers in England will remember ‘Stan’ best for his time at the helm of the Hallé Orchestra between 1983 and 1992. These were not easy years and the tough financial climate for most of that period coincided with a certain degree of conservative obduracy on the part of the listening public. The management baulked even at Szymanowski. Nonetheless, as he had in Minneapolis, Skrowaczewski persisted in putting mixed programmes before a sceptical public: ‘You must hear what is going on. You may not want to hear it again, but you must know where we are and you can compare it with old music. Sometimes new music casts light on old music’. One success did come when he invited Lutosławski as guest conductor of his own works, because ‘the pubic was absolutely taken by his works and his explanations and his presence’. On March 14, 2013 he will return to the Hallé, with a programme that combines two pieces that carry special import for him: the Lutosławski Concerto and the Symphony No 5 by Shostakovich, whose slow movement still evokes for him the occasion on which he first heard it, when German forces were invading Polish territory. It should be a great reunion.
The Polish government did regularly invite Skrowaczewski back to conduct in the land of his birth, but always with insufficient notice. When the first secretary of the Polish Communist party came to the USA in the mid-1970s, he met ‘Stan’ at a diplomatic reception and told him to name his date. He did: February 1981. Skrowaczewski was right in thinking he could not already be committed so far in advance, but he had no idea of the turn history would take in the interim, with a Polish pope and the rise of the Solidarity trade union. In two minds about going back, when he arrived back after 21 years away, he found the country changed beyond recognition, with a palpable tension in the air: ‘The public greeted me marvellously and, after the concert, people came from other cities, embraced me and cried ... It was nothing to do with the music ... I had just two concerts and they were like dynamite ... Since Poland was liberated in 1990, I have gone to Poland almost every year’.
Stanisław Skrowaczewski has remained remarkably and admirably active into his ninth decade and in Japan in particular he is increasingly revered. Japanese audiences have always shown a particular taste for senior maestros – think of Günter Wand or their own Takashi Asahina – and most of his concerts there in recent years have been feted and also recorded for posterity, usually with a few ‘patches’ where necessary. He finds this the best way to record and is in no hurry to return to the studio: ‘I don’t like recording; I don’t think anyone likes it. If some moment, some note, is not nice, they have to repeat it; and to repeat it is not the same’. Stanisław Skrowaczewski brings a life’s accumulated wisdom to his work and this remark serves to remind me that, far from living in the past, this is a maestro who lives very much in the present, creating and re-creating each piece afresh. London is very fortunate to have him this week. The only advice to Londoners has to be: Go!
Michael McManus is an author, writing on subjects including classical music, theatre and politics. His latest book, 'Tory Pride and Prejudice', a history of the Conservative Party and homosexual law reform, was published by Biteback in October 2011.