Warsaw in the winter

Michael McManusWed 30th January 2013
Warsaw in the WinterAt the wintry grave of Witold Lutosławski in Warsaw

The second blog celebrating Lutosławski's centenary takes us to Warsaw for performances of the Symphony No 3, Partita and Chain 2

Last week, in Warsaw, I enjoyed a rare and treasurable opportunity, literally to retrace the steps of my student self. As I wrote in a tribute piece in the January print edition of Gramophone and in the introduction to this series of blog entries, I had the great pleasure of knowing Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) for the last five years of his life, having first met this charming, gentle, inspiring man at the 1988 Warsaw Festival.

A quarter of a century later, I am back in Warsaw for the first time, older and perhaps wiser too. I am now far too long in the tooth to participate in the kind of revolutionary fervour I encountered back in 1988 and, in any case, I am not here at the suggestion of opponents of the regime, hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop, truffling for precious Melodiya LPs and snatching a few hours of sleep each night on a lumpy sofa. I am the honoured guest of the admirable Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which works tirelessly to ‘promote Polish culture around the world and actively participate in international cultural exchange’.

The city is under a foot of snow and bitterly cold, but the Poles are hardened to this and respond in a business-like manner: unlike back home, the roads are gritted and, by and large, the pavements are sanded or salted too. I arrive, late, in the bitterly wintry evening. A taxi awaits and I am rapidly delivered to a pleasant hotel, as a latest dusting of snow descends. Had I been a guest of the regime in 1988, I dare say there would have been a persistent chaperone awaiting me, but in 2013 I simply dump my case, perform swift ablutions, don my coat and scarf again, and head out to find an agreeable bar for an hour or two.

In the interim, a splendid bag appears in my room, bearing a large facsimile of Lutosławski’s distinctive signature, containing a handsome and freshly-minted book about him, replete with anecdotes and photographs, the new 8-CD edition of all his major works for ensemble, a cheery guide book to Poland and its customs, an itinerary, and a comprehensive and authoritative looking DVD and book package about his friend Andrzej Panufnik.

The next morning, in the lobby of the hotel, I meet the troika of leading experts on Lutosławski from the English-speaking world: the amiable, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Steven Stucky (whose book about Lutosławski was published in 1981) and the writers and musicologists Adrian Thomas and Charles Bodman Rae (the latter being author of a later musical biography of the composer, helpfully revised after his death). All three of them can claim to have known Lutosławski longer and better than I ever did and there is a splendid, competitive yet genteel edge as anecdotes, opinions and insights are exchanged. My principal trump card of having been present when history was made in September 1988 gets me through – just – but I am definitely the d’Artagnan here and no musketeer.

We visit the city’s splendid Chopin museum (its death room a characteristically intense and gripping Polish highlight) and we muse on whether the Lutosławski home in Eastern Poland (currently a natural history museum) might ever achieve a similar level of glory, in honour of its most celebrated scion. I find myself talking to the quietly radiant Camilla Jessel Panufnik, devoted widow of Sir Andrzej Panufnik, who studied and graduated with Lutosławski and spent the war years playing piano duets with him in Warsaw’s cafes and bars, until the Uprising and the violent German response ended all that.

At a well-attended press conference, a brilliant young software expert, who also happens to be a composer, unveils an app for smart phones which is, by any token, a remarkable labour of love. This is designed to guide visitors around all the sites of significance to Lutosławski. Quixotically, it can even lead anyone who is sufficiently intrigued and ambulant on a guided tour of the embassies of all the countries where Lutosławski performed.

We learn that, in 1955, the composer grew weary of living 200 yards from a loudspeaker that blared out ‘street music’ and wrote to the prime minister asking for a bigger flat, in a more agreeable environment. There is also a glorious piece of simultaneous mis-translation, worthy of Joe Orton, when Lutosławski’s famous remark about musical conservatism is rendered as: ‘Sputnik is circling the Earth but we are still playing faggots’. Thereafter the word ‘bassoon’ is employed unusually emphatically by all the interpreters whenever that particular wind instrument is cited.

After a robust lunch we visit the composer’s grave, next to that of his compatriot, friend and early champion Witold Rowicki. The slab is grey and imposing, the cross above it black and simple. There are flowers, many flowers, and a beautiful banner from Anne Sophie Mutter, Lutosławski’s sometime muse, who is to play at the centenary concert in the evening, referring, poetically and touchingly, to the sense of Bewunderung (wonderment) that the composer induced in her. The head of the Polish Composers’ Union speaks so intensely that I wonder if he might start to cry, then Steven Stucky adds a few well-chosen words on behalf of the English-speaking contingent. Cemeteries in the freezing snow have a poignancy and a stark drama that is entirely their own and, for a moment or two, we are all lost in thought. Then we tramp back through the snow and slush to our coach.

Returning to the Philharmonie in the evening after almost 25 years brings a gratifying wave of nostalgia. This time it falls to Antoni Wit to conduct the Warsaw Philharmonic in Symphony No 3. He does so with passion and the performance could hardly be less like that of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle at last year’s Proms, who treated it as a wild amalgam of chamber music and a concerto for orchestra. Wit’s way is bigger-boned and more muscular. I am not sure which ‘take’ I prefer, but the piece is big enough to emerge unscathed and impress either way.

After the interval comes Anne-Sophie Mutter, looking and sounding amazing. She plays the hybrid piece Lutosławski created for her – beginning with the orchestration of his Partita for violin and orchestra, and ending with Chain 2, the two linked by the ghostly, delicate interlude that he composed specifically for this purpose. The interlude seems to have neither a beginning nor an end, and it is easy to understand why Stanisław Skrowaczewski likes to play it as a piece in its own right, but twice, in immediate succession.

That clear, steady Mutter tone really is most distinctive and it suits Lutosławski’s idiom perfectly. It is little wonder she became the muse for the violin concerto upon which he was working at the time of his death. I feel sure we were denied a masterpiece. At the end of the concert, awards and prizes as well as flowers are exchanged and Anne-Sophie Mutter is gracious as she runs out of hands to carry all the items that are bestowed upon her. In a speech that combines substance, economy and grace, she praises the remarkable combination that Lutosławski possessed, of brilliant intellect, superb compositional technique and a warm and generous heart. She speaks for many in the hall.

The event has been a triumph and it is a pleasure to break bread (and share a few vodkas) afterwards with the brilliant young team from the Institute, who clearly live and breathe all this. Well, the Lutosławski year has begun and this special blog has begun too. The next stop is my home city of London, where the Philharmonia launches its 'Woven Words' festival, celebrating Lutosławski, this coming Wednesday, January 30. This occasion too will be nostalgic for me – the first time I shall have heard Krystian Zimerman play the Piano Concerto live since that Polish premiere in 1988. It promises to be a wonderful occasion and an emotional one too.

It means so much that the centenary of this wonderful man is being celebrated across the world, that this music plays on and therefore he too lives on, in the music and through it. I hope this blog will inspire at least a few readers to renew their acquaintanceship with Lutosławski’s music – or even to listen to it live for the first time.

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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