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Lutosławski Commemoration at the Proms

2004-09-03

"Concerto for Orchestra" and "Mi-Parti" were performed by the outstanding BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by leading Scandinavian conductors, Jukka-Pekka Saraste for the Concerto for Orchestra on 29 August and Osmo Vänskä for Mi-parti on 12 August.

As the works of Witold Lutosławski have been perennial favourites at the BBC Proms in London during each summer season for many years now, it is very fitting that the memory of his death ten years ago should be marked by a significant contribution. The choice of music to be performed has been a very happy one, with the most important and imposing work from his folk-music inspired period in the 1950s, the Concerto for Orchestra, contrasted with a masterly piece from the 1970s that seems to encapsulate all the important features of his newer style, Mi-Parti for orchestra of 1976. Both works were performed by the outstanding BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by leading Scandinavian conductors, Jukka-Pekka Saraste for the Concerto for Orchestra on 29 August and Osmo Vänskä for Mi-parti on 12 August.

Mi-parti is a brilliant essay in form. Despite its relatively brief duration (the score gives fifteen minutes), it manipulates form, scoring, melodic material and textures into an intense musical drama that reveals more on every hearing. It is the deliberately hesitant but totally confident opening of textural and melodic conjunction which sets the tone for the exciting developmental central section and the slow winding down of the melodic fragments at the end. Osmo Vänskä’s handling of the score was both illuminating and breathtaking. Untypically the opening string textures with their eerie

glissandos sounded almost melodic instead of slightly characterless, while the disconnected wind melodies emerged with all the style and emotion that could be imagined. One was reminded of a similar melodic build-up in the introduction to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which may have influenced Lutosławski. Each of the three phrases rose to its natural climax with the third overwhelmingly presented. The stunning entry of the brass in the central part came as the shock that Lutosławski must have intended with the interaction with the rest of the orchestra meticulously coordinated. The motivic activity was articulated with a luminescence which helped one to follow the composer’s thought processes. The final “collapse” into the slow overlapping lines of the Lento section with the intermittent fanfares and the almost disembodied and transformed fragments from the opening which followed was beautifully gauged. The performance was greater than the sum of its parts: the structure had a tautness and clarity that may have been also the result of the duration, around eleven and a half minutes.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the composition of the Concerto for Orchestra with the performance conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste proved an excellent choice. Just like Mi-parti it is a brilliant exercise in the manipulation of form, giving some acknowledgement to tradition but in its way completely original. The composer’s use of folk melodies continues to impress, as a model of how to use folk melodies in a symphonic context. Certainly, too, it is a work that treats melody in a flexible and ever-developing way which is something that Lutosławski continued to do in his later works. Above all, though, the Concerto for Orchestra is a virtuoso piece that will tax the skill of any orchestra. Saraste coaxed his BBC players to a wonderful performance, full of technical brilliance, especially from the woodwind, but always full of character and presence. The folk melodies of the first movement were presented with a no-nonsense panache that stressed the virtuoso qualities, while the dreamlike sound of the Capriccio section of the second movement was brilliantly realised. The articulation of the toccata section the finale was all that one could want, while the climactic chorale showed the brass section of the orchestra to good advantage.

As is usual with the performances of Lutosławski's music at the Proms, these two works were set in an excellent European context. Mi-parti opened the earlier concert and was followed by Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No.2 and Sibelius’s Second Symphony, while the Concerto for Orchestra was the thrilling concluding item in the later concert, following Enescu's First Rumanian Rhapsody, Bartók’s Viola Concerto and Koechlin’s orchestration of Debussy's Khamma. Good company indeed for the well travelled music of one of Poland’s most distinguished composers of the 20th century.

Niall O’Loughlin

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