Lutosławski's Cello Concerto

Michael McManusMon 4th March 2013
Lutosławski's Cello ConcertoCellist Miklós Perényi performed Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

The fourth blog celebrating the composer’s centenary takes us to Berlin for a performance of the Cello Concerto by Miklós Perényi under Sir Simon Rattle

I have always had a special affection for Witold Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto. Like so many of his works, it is tautly composed, relatively short and full of contrasts. Intriguingly, it also strikes me as sitting to some degree outside the mainstream of his otherwise clear compositional phases, emanating from his most avant-garde period but somehow not fully belonging to it. From the very late 1970s (with the composition of his Epitaph for oboe and piano) until his death in 1994, Lutosławski enjoyed a very distinctive Indian summer, in which, after two decades or more of experimentation and exploration, focusing principally on harmony rather than melody, he returned to a more accessible, demotic and, yes, even tuneful idiom. This comprehensive metamorphosis into a distinctive form of post-modernism did not occur until a decade or so after the composition of the Cello Concerto, which was written for Rostropovich, yet in this extremely audience-friendly work it is very clearly adumbrated. According to the composer, Slava ‘admitted … with a smile that, after 30 years of playing the instrument, he had had to learn new fingering … but it clearly came to him without much difficulty, since he performed all the quarter-tone passages with amazing ease – more than ease – with great bravura at times’. Their joint recording of the piece attests to that.

Last week I travelled to Berlin to hear Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic tackle the piece, accompanying the veteran Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi, whose star has been so much in the ascendant in recent years. This short film demonstrates just how sincere, compelling and long-standing Sir Simon’s advocacy of the composer has been, as does this brief excerpt from a performance he and the orchestra gave in the Berlin Philharmonie of the Third Symphony, shortly before bringing the piece triumphantly to the Proms. Rattle has always believed that Lutosławski is one of the titans of 20th century music and he and the Berliners have demonstrated a remarkable and commendable commitment to proving the point, programming, I understand, no fewer than 15 of the Pole’s compositions in this, his centenary year.

I hadn’t heard the work in concert for many years – indeed, I am sure this was the first time I had heard it live since the death of the composer. Sir Simon Rattle really is an irresistibly persuasive conductor of this music. The Concerto begins with a five-minute solo, in which the cello veers from introspection to projection and back again, only to be interrupted by catcalls from the orchestral brass. Speaking in the mid-1970s, Lutosławski sought to explain how his use of the aleatoric method (which he likened to ‘a sculpture out of liquid substance’) created a unique sense of confrontational dialogue in this piece: ‘The entrances of the cello and the orchestra have been composed so that any entrance suits any other … It is like having two people shouting and one shouts louder than the other … They want to tell each other something but are talking at the same time’.

Despite the protestations of the composer about ‘pure music’, the piece immediately strikes most listeners as a perfectly designed piece of musical metaphor, from a cultured and liberal-minded man whose country was in the grip of Communist barbarians. From the first entry of the trumpets and then the trombones, this piece seems to contain a clear narrative not of cooperation between soloist and orchestra, but of confrontation between the individual and the collective, as the orchestra seems to chide, bully and even humiliate the soloist. When I explained this interpretation of the piece to a German friend, she asked a question that had never occurred to me, but seemed perfectly apposite: could the cello ‘win’ in one performance, but go on to suffer defeat at the hands of the orchestra the next night? Would it go to the ‘best of three’?

Lutosławski once described the solo part in this piece as having a ‘frivolous atmosphere’ and I cannot believe the piece has ever been more wittily played. Miklós Perényi, gloriously nerveless and dead-pan throughout, ploughed on determinedly in the face of seemingly insuperable odds, while Sir Simon Rattle played up the wit and humour in the piece at every turn, the comedian to Perényi’s straight man. On both the nights I attended, the audience laughed out loud at the first exchanges between soloist and orchestra, as Rattle played his role of ‘conductor as traffic policeman’ to perfection. The effect on the mood generated by the work was dramatic. Instead of leaving listeners with the sense of having witnessed a gang of strident and arrogant bullies beating up an innocent victim, this all felt far more satirical, with the self-pitying portamenti on the cello towards the end of the piece evoking not despair but a degree of irritation and impatience, leavened by resilience rather than resignation.

Perényi too was a fine advocate, playing a piece which he had previously played in this hall 12 years earlier. On the final night (which was broadcast live on the Internet as part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s online Concert Hall initiative) Perényi returned to the platform and played Lutosławski’s brief Sacher Variation for solo cello, an unusually appropriate encore, which somehow served to underline the fact that the solo protagonist from the Concerto had not only survived: he also got the last laugh. Sir Simon Rattle slipped unobtrusively into the stalls to listen, his face a picture of concentration and appreciation. He clearly can’t get enough of Lutosławski’s music and, in the superb performances he leads, that shows in every bar.

The concert also included Métaboles by Lutosławski’s near-contemporary Dutilleux – a perfect scene-setter for the Concerto – and a spirited performance of Schumann’s Second Symphony. The Berliners were, as ever, superb, with special mentions for principal horn Stefan Dohr and ‘the man with the golden flute’, Emmanuel Pahud. They tackled the eccentricities of the piece and, in particular, its aleatoric sections, with real gusto and, as he had at the Proms in the Symphony No 3, Sir Simon Rattle managed to conjure up a chamber-like transparency in the piece, even in its most densely scored passages. There are no plans for commercial recordings, alas, but the Berliners’ subscription concerts are generally available via the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall website.

This week, on Thursday March 7, the Philharmonia is back at the Royal Festival Hall with its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and Londoners will have their opportunity to hear the Cello Concerto, played by Truls Mørk as part of the 'Woven Words' Festival, along with the ever popular Concerto for Orchestra, based on folk music idioms and Debussy’s La Mer.

Michael McManus

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.

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