Keeping the Lutosławski tradition alive

Michael McManusWed 20th March 2013
Keeping the Lutosławski tradition aliveStanisław Skrowaczewski rehearsing the Hallé Orchestra in Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra

The fifth blog celebrating the composer’s centenary describes two contrasting performances of the Concerto for Orchestra

One of the rare and considerable pleasures of this year is the opportunity not only to hear so many performances of works by Witold Lutosławski in his centenary year, but also to hear a variety of different interpreters tackling this repertoire, often in the same works and in rapid succession. Programming substantial pieces from the latter decades of the 20th century is still regarded as fairly toxic at the box office, so the clear emergence of a distinguished tradition of Lutosławski interpretation is something very special indeed. Some of the leading high-profile advocates of Lutosławski’s canon knew the composer – notably Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Stanisław Skrowaczewski, 90 years young this year, who knew Lutosławski and his wife for a good half century. Their continuing advocacy guarantees a ready audience, but perhaps even more encouraging is the enthusiasm for this music amongst a younger generation, with Ed Gardner and Ilan Volkov at the head of the pack.

The Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen have really been playing themselves into these pieces, touring them as well as performing them at the Royal Festival Hall in the ‘Woven Words’ festival. Salonen’s approach to the Cello Concerto of 1969-70 is markedly different from Simon Rattle’s and, at the Festival Hall on Thursday March 7, there were few laughs to be had. Conductor, soloist and orchestra embraced the apparent political narrative and this most confrontational of concertos had a brutal edge that the Berliners had eschewed, as the full weight of the orchestra was brought to bear on the soloist, leaving the audience in no doubt about the malignant intention of the collective towards the individual. Truls Mørk was on superb form and responded robustly, and the virtuosity of the orchestra was a given.

The final work on that evening’s programme, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, is a perfect vehicle for demonstrating that virtuosity and the opportunity was taken with verve. After Lutosławski was denounced for formalism by the Stalinist regime that seized control in Poland after the Second World War, he changed idiom until the political thaw came. The Concerto is one of the last pieces he produced in that unhappy period, using a characteristic method of combining relatively simple, generally tonal melodies, often drawing upon folk melodies, with harmonies and counterpoints that introduce an element of chromaticism. He once described the Concerto as ‘the only serious piece’ he produced in that vein and it has long been his most performed concert piece. Salonen and the Philharmonia took the golden opportunity to demonstrate just how dazzling they can be in concert. The playing, both individually and collectively, was stunning.

A week later I had the privilege of hearing Stanisław Skrowaczewski rehearse his old band, the Hallé, in the Concerto for Orchestra. The tonal palette was startlingly different. Great pieces can, of course, not only withstand, but benefit from, highly varying perspectives, but I confess I was not ready for an interpretation that immediately made me understand the logic of pairing this piece, so often treated as being, first and foremost, a showpiece for virtuosity, with the far darker Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich. To begin at the end, as it were, ‘Stan’ takes a very clear view of Shostakovich’s true intentions in that latter piece. In the many performances I have heard over the years, only Slava Rostropovich, in his later performances with the LSO, has made its finale sound so shatteringly and unrelentingly tragic.

What was so remarkable in Skrowaczewski’s conception was that Shostakovich’s bleak evocation of pre-war Stalinism (supposedly his artist’s response to the ‘just criticism’ of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) was so immaculately matched by the Concerto, which, under his elegant and thoughtful stewardship, sounded just as deep and dark as its companion piece. Suddenly the parallel was obvious in the music itself: just like Shostakovich, Lutosławski was composing under the shadow of intense political pressure and unpleasantness and possibly under duress, acting on imperatives, to quote his first biographer, Steven Stucky, ‘imposed by odious forces beyond his control’.

The roughly contemporaneous Shostakovich Symphony No 10, is renowned for the angry, violent repetitions it contains of a motif based upon a version of the composer’s initials (D-S-C-H) and it is either a deliberate nod at a respected colleague or else a remarkable coincidence that this motif is all but quoted, repeatedly, at the end of Lutosławski’s Concerto. The contrast between the quicksilver scherzo and the outer movements was stark and the piece, which Skrowaczewski has long held up as his personal ‘signature piece’, left an indelible impression. It was a true privilege to eavesdrop on this master at work. The Hallé has been through some difficult travails in recent decades, not least during Skrowaczewski’s own tenure as its music director, with politics playing its part. That thought served only to make these evocative performances, combining arresting power and gravitas of utterance with shimmering sensitivity and nuance, all the more gratifying and impressive.

In June Skrowaczewski will return to his native Poland – always an emotional experience for him – to conduct Lutosławski’s Symphony No1, which brought its composer such unwanted attention and grief. It is by no means his favourite piece by his old friend – he regards the Fourth Symphony as his crowning masterpiece, as do many others (myself included) – but it is commendable that it should receive such distinguished advocacy, because it is the piece in which Lutosławski’s distinctive voice really is heard for the first time. This centenary year has already brought us two fine new recordings of the piece.

On Sony Classical, Esa-Pekka Salonen has now completed a cycle of the symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is hard to believe, but the earliest recording in this superb set, the world premier recording of Symphony No 3, is now getting on for 30 years old. That of Symphony No 4 (also a first recording) dates from 1993 and that of No 2 from 1994. The cycle is now complete, thanks to the only concert recording in the set, Symphony No 1, set down just before Christmas. As someone who worked so closely with the composer, Salonen has a special authority in these pieces and both recording quality and orchestral playing are superb throughout. This is now one of three full cycles of the symphonies on disc (the composer did record all of them at least once but not as a cycle), alongside Antoni Wit on Naxos (the First, Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies) and, as of this month, Ed Gardner on Chandos (the First, Second, Third and Fourth).

Gardner has a number of advantages. The BBC Symphony Orchestra worked regularly with Lutosławski and that ‘race memory’ evidently counts for something. The vivid, Chandos surround sound recording is also uniquely well suited to works where the variations of dynamic are so extreme and the shifting shadings of tonal palette so subtle. Gardner is a true devotee and the final disc in his series includes Symphony No 1, along with concertante pieces for clarinet (the highly accessible and popular Dance Preludes, played with infectious enthusiasm by the evergreen Michael Collins) and violin – both the Partita and Chain 2 (with Tasmin Little). All the recordings and performances are in the demonstration class, making me regret all the more the absence of the short and rather haunting Interlude that Lutosławski composed to link the two pieces for violin in the concert hall. It is attractive and serves a useful purpose. The booklet notes by Adrian Thomas, formerly head of music at Radio 3, are, as ever, a work of art in their own right. The Lutosławski tradition is in safe hands for the future, if these exciting performances are anything to go by.

The Philharmonia's final 'Woven Words' concert at the Royal Festival Hall takes place tomorrow, March 21, featuring Lutosławski's Symphony No 4. Click here for details.

Michael McManus's picture

Michael McManus

Michael McManus is an author, journalist and playwright. His most recent book, 'Edward Heath: A Singular Life' (Elliott & Thompson, 2016), was widely praised and his political play 'An Honourable Man' will be having its premiere production at the White Bear Theatre in November 2018.

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