Woven Words

Michael McManusWed 13th February 2013
Woven WordsLutosławski captured during rehearsals at the Royal Festival Hall in February 1989 by renowned photographer Hanya Chlala

The third blog celebrating Lutosławski's centenary follows the Philharmonia's series dedicated to the composer

When the Lutosławski year began so promisingly, in Warsaw on the eve of the composer’s centenary, a figurative starter’s pistol had been fired, internationally as well as in Lutosławski’s homeland.  

As a relatively young conductor, Sir Simon Rattle was one of the leading advocates of Lutosławski’s work while the composer was still alive, in particular as an early and exciting champion of the Symphony No 3, the piece which to his mind most clearly demonstrates that Lutosławski deserves his place in the pantheon of great composers. Rattle’s splendid performance of that symphony at last year’s Proms was a revelation. Rarely, if ever, have I heard so mighty a piece played with such transparency and delicacy as well as power. It was like hearing the biggest chamber piece ever written. It is an approach that also can bear wonderful fruit in other works composed upon a mighty canvas, such as the second part of Mahler’s Symphony No 8. This was the prelude to what amounts to a mini-festival by the Berlin Philharmonic, as they look to programme no fewer than 15 of Lutosławski’s works, to mark his centenary. The full programme for the Berlin Summer Festival remains tantalisingly unpublished, but I have heard that all four of the symphonies may be played: what a treat that would (or will) be!

Lutosławski is being celebrated in the UK too. I have just caught up with the broadcast relay of a celebration concert from Glasgow last month, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Ilan Volkov, now its principal guest conductor. I have now reached an age where, in hope rather than conviction, I simply regard anyone younger than myself as ‘young’. On that basis, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra under Volkov is certainly young men’s music; and it sounded it. Even more revelatory was his performance of Symphony No 4, composed when Lutosławski was in his late 70s.  I have never heard the work leap off the page quite like this before.  It all boded well for the remainder of the orchestra’s Muzyka Polska series, which ranges far beyond Lutosławski.

Even closer to home for me, a formidable celebration is underway in London, under the aegis of a conductor who played an even more significant role in promulgating this music during the composer’s lifetime. Esa-Pekka Salonen made the first commercial recording of the Third Symphony (with the LAPO, for CBS), narrowly pipping the composer himself (with the Berlin Philharmonic, for Philips) to the finishing line. He subsequently made the first recording of Symphony No 4 too, plus a disc of other pieces including the Second Symphony. He has now recorded the First Symphony in Los Angeles as well and the full cycle of four is to be released shortly. I hope to be in a position to report on that very soon.

Having encountered Lutosławski in the concert hall for the first time in September 1988 (see previous post), I was naturally very keen to renew the acquaintance as soon as possible, preferably without having to fly anywhere. Fortunately for me, David Whelton had just taken over at the helm of the Philharmonia and his first major event was a four-concert series in February 1989, in celebration of the 75th birthday of Lutosławski (who by then was in fact 76 years old). Significant works from the Lutosławski canon (largely conducted by the composer) were intermingled with works by earlier composers whose work he admired – such as Haydn, Ravel, Roussel and Debussy. The original flyer is reproduced on Adrian Thomas’s excellent English-language website devoted to Polish music (onpolishmusic.com).

I was now studying again, but the social sciences regime at Oxford was a light-handed one, so I was able to absent myself for the third concert and for the morning rehearsal for the fourth and final concert. I saw the Holligers play the Double Concerto in concert and, in rehearsal, Heinrich Schiff’s eloquent rendition of the Cello Concerto, followed by Lutosławski rehearsing his Symphony No 3, which was already a well-established element in the symphonic repertoire. In the darkened Festival Hall, with just a handful of on-lookers, the composer responded to the passionate playing of the Philharmonia by belying his own reputation for being a private, somewhat shy and diffident man. It was the first time I saw him at close hand, completely, passionately immersed in his music; and I truly understood how important this piece was for him. Some of the most famous images of Lutosławski were captured at that rehearsal by the renowned photographer Hanya Chlala. Very kindly, she subsequently sent me three prints, one of which still adorns my living room wall today.

Though Lutosławski always claimed his muse was too abstract to be influenced by contemporary events, even today, listeners can hear what appear to be echoes in the Symphony No 3 of the many travails his homeland was enduring at the time of its composition, with the imposition of Martial Law by a home-grown military dictator seen as the only means of averting a Soviet military intervention. A recording of the premiere of the piece, with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Solti, was even played at a Solidarity event specially convened for the purpose.

So both the Philharmonia and its now principal conductor have a very special connection with Lutosławski and his music. The 'Woven Words' festival, which is taking place in London and on tour throughout this year, follows the example festival of 1989, in combining Lutosławski’s works with those of other composers who particularly interested or inspired him. The orchestra, supported (as are so many of the special undertakings in this centenary year) by the admirable Adam Mickiewicz Institute, has also set up a hugely informative website in support of the festival which must be by any token a model of its kind, combining touching films, thoughtful essays and a wealth of photographs. It is aimed both at the layman or novice and equally at the musical specialist. The same is true of the carefully balanced concert programmes that the orchestra has now begun to take across Europe and to the Far East as part of the festival.

The opening 'Woven Words' concert, on January 30, provided my first opportunity since 1988 to hear Krystian Zimerman play the Piano Concerto live. At the morning rehearsal it struck me at once that, across a quarter of a century, his interpretation has deepened and refined, lending new and greater weight to the piece. I certainly didn’t recall hearing hints of Gershwin before. After the pianist’s section of the rehearsal was over, I had a brief chat with him. He recalled how Lutosławski had wondered ‘how the Concerto might sound, 25 years on’. It was a characteristic of this composer not to meddle with his scores once they had been signed off for publication, except, occasionally, to orchestrate them. Of this work he said to the dedicatee that, now the piece was composed, his role was effectively over. The piece would have to acquire a life – and a tradition – of its own. So it has proved.

The Philharmonia are on a great run of form just now. The revised acoustic of the Festival Hall can be kind to strings and the Philharmonia took full advantage in Lutosławski’s passionate, profound Musique Funèbre. This was beautiful, ravishing playing. The public performance of the Concerto in the evening had everything: a great pianist at the height of his powers, alert, sympathetic conducting and an orchestra which, on this showing at least, has numerous strengths and no obvious weaknesses. How lucky we are in London! There was more orchestral virtuosity after the interval, but despite that, in its full version, I always find Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé outstays its welcome, unlike the works of Lutosławski, which never seem to have a bar too many.

Since January 30, the Philharmonia has taken Lutosławski’s Symphony No 4 to Tokyo, leavening the offering for that famously conservative audience with some well-chosen works by Beethoven, another titan of the past whom Lutosławski much admired. The next 'Woven Words' concert in London is due on Thursday March 7, combining Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra with Debussy’s La Mer. It should be another classic.

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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