Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Must-Read Book

In my Lutosławski centenary post, I teasingly ended like this:
I've left a few of the major Lutosławski score alone here, hoping you will be tempted to explore them all for yourselves. One is a particularly outstanding piece in the composer's later modernist vein. I'll let you find out which one that is!
As many of you have been busy exploring the links, you might just be wondering which piece I had in mind. Well, it's the Livre pour orchestre ('Book for orchestra') of 1968 - a work I absolutely adore and which I believe to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the last century. 

Lasting under twenty minutes, it's a work best appreciated through repeated listening. Re-acquainting myself with it last night, I listened to it some eight times over, getting something new from it each time and loving every second of it.  

Its continuous structure couldn't be easier to understand. It consists of four main movements, which Lutosławski calls 'chapters'. The first three are fairly short, while the fourth 'chapter' is much more extended and functions as a true climax. These are the meat of the score and I'll come to them shortly.

They are linked by three very short 'interludes', which the composer intended as points of relaxation equivalent to the gaps between movements where the audience can stop concentrating, cough, shuffle about in their seats, maybe pass a quiet comment to a neighbour. In these 'interludes', various small groups - in Interlude 1 three clarinets, in Interlude 2 clarinets and harp and in Interlude 3 harp and piano - play 'aleatory' patterns (those highly-controlled elements of uncoordinated performance) that sound like a murmur (or 'wobble'). Only the third interlude leads directly into the 'chapter' that follows. 

The piece's 'Chapter One' opens to a passage where string glissandi are used to create a glorious sweep of melody, initially revolving around the notes of a C minor triad then changing onto the notes a C major triad before branching out. The section sings and dances on, growing wilder, until the brass intervene, provoking a magnificent clatter of percussion. The brass grumble away until another clatter leaves the section to end on a quiet note of sustained mystery. 

The second 'chapter' is a scherzo, full of magical sonorities. This is where the listener's fancy can lead the blogger's art of description astray. I cannot but hear this section as a kind of 'Midsummer Night's Dream' passage - a passage of Britten-crossed-with-Mendelssohn-transformed-into-pure-Lutosławski that brings us the fairies, the rude mechanicals, a spot of Midsummer madness and the ruler of Athens declaiming a speech. I can't get that fancy out of my head now and it helps me enjoy this delightful music even more. I have absolutely no evidence that the composer ever thought of such a connection - or any huge expectation that other listeners will hear it too. What it should suggest to you though, if nothing else, is the music's fantastic, fairy-like character, its variety, its suggestiveness, its wonder. 

The third 'chapter' contains elements from the first two 'chapters'. It's another scherzo, but a far earthier one. (more Beethoven than Mendelssohn). It uses glissandi, also melodically, and is a concentrated, purposeful (and perfect) piece of writing.

The fourth and final 'chapter', which emerges quietly out of the preceding 'interlude', is the key movement of the piece. For me it's a powerful symphonic statement, even if Lutosławski (at this stage in his output) was struggling against traditional symphonic writing; indeed, also for me, it shares a surprising number of features with Sibelius's great Fifth Symphony - the remarkable transitions between slow and fast music, the 'hammer blows' punctuating by loud silences, the mystery and grandeur - and has something of the same emotional effect (on me). Again perhaps unhelpfully for you (though hopefully not), I have a 'fancy' about it. The movement suggests to my imagination a warm human sensibility walking beneath Northern stars, standing amazed at the sweeping mysterious majesty of the Northern Lights as they cross the skies before him, suddenly feeling anxious, panicking, then - as dawn comes and the birds begin to sing and soar (those duetting flutes) - being overcome by feelings of peace and harmony. That's my fancy, but it's a fancy that suggests the symphonic power and the drama and beauty of this culminating movement. The string writing in the early stages is typical of Lutosławski (and became ever more typical in his later works). Even if it takes a non-melodic form, it still sings and is utterly beautiful. Listen out for (and you won't miss it) the thrilling passage where a sequence of eight densely-packed chords are punched out by the brass, getting ever nearer in time between each punch. It's an astonishing effect of closing-in. 

Lutosławski's Livre pour orchestre may not be a best-seller but it's a true classic. Hope you enjoy reading it!

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