Friday, 25 January 2013

Lutosławski: Many Happy Returns (for the listener)!

If any birthday needs celebrating (other than my own) it's that of the great Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. He was born exactly one hundred years ago today. Happy birthday, Witold!

Lutosławski, who died in 1994 (aged 81), was one of Poland's leading post-war composers, well-known and widely-regarded around the world. Like so many composers of his generation, a degree of posthumous neglect has set in. Thankfully he has always had dogged champions and hopefully more will rally to his cause this year. I'm doing my bit here, and Tom Service has being doing his bit over at the Guardian

I must confess to having paralleled the posthumous trajectory of Lutosławski's music in having been a voracious devourer of his music in my younger years and then, having got to know most of his major works, moving on to other composers and new discoveries. I've not listened to Lutosławski in recent years. Until now. Revisiting some of my old favourites has been a journey of rediscovery - and a fillip. 

Wikipedia provides a chronological list of Lutosławski's works. Here's a chronological list of works that are available to listen to on YouTube:

Of the early works, the Piano Sonata shows a confident young composer, albeit one without a voice of his own. The piece's clear influences are Ravel and Debussy. This seems fitting as Lutosławski is, I would say,  a composer very much in the mould of Ravel, despite the vast differences in their mature styles. The short Lacrimosa is surprisingly close to the soundworld of Szymanowski's late choral music. The Paganini Variations (yes, on that theme!) are the best-known of the very early works. At heart they are a translation into two piano form (with added harmonic spice) of the set of variations on the theme which Paganini himself composed (his Caprice No.24). As the early works proceed you also see an interest in Polish folk music. This began before the war and continued under the communist regime imposed after the war. In pieces like the Little Suite you can hear how accomplished and pleasing Lutosławski can be in this vein. 

For all the fine qualities of the Symphony No. 1 (a piece in the traditional four movements, with touches of Stravinsky throughout, an elegiac Bartókian slow movement and a goblin-like scherzo), the culminating masterpiece of this somewhat Bartók-like period is unquestionably the glorious Concerto for Orchestra. There are three movements. The Intrada begins as an exhilarating series of symphonic metamorphoses on a Polish folk melody intensified over a constantly pulsing pedal note. This leads to a pastoral section which also introduces new material that will be worked on late in the concerto. Dramatic rhythmic music alternates with singing music, leading to a thrilling climatic passage before the pastoral mood returns. The delightful second movement Capriccio notturno e Arioso begins as a piece of what Bartók would have called 'night music' - a whispering scherzo (shades of Mendelssohn!) - before the brass-rich Arioso (acting as a trio) brings contrasting music of heroic and passionate character. The bulk of the Concerto for Orchestra lies with its finale - a Passacaglia followed by a Toccata e Corale. During the Passacaglia the theme passes through all manner of orchestral colours (as befits a concerto for orchestra), rising from murky beginnings to a strenuous climax. The vigorous  and increasingly heady Toccata is interwoven with a Corale introduced by a choir of woodwinds and graced by an accompanying melody introduced by a solo flute. You will doubtless recognise the return of the theme from the Intrada. Superb, isn't it?

With the cultural thaw in Poland during the second half of the 1950s, the country witnessed the birth of a home-grown avant-garde and Lutosławski was one of its leading figures. This Polish modernist movement quickly became known and influential well beyond the borders of Poland. As the 1960s dawned the composer of the tonal Concerto for Orchestra had become a very different-sounding composer, writing works like Jeux Vénitiens ('Venetian Games'). Here you find the composer employing his own version of twelve-tone serialism. You will also find him using his famous Cage-inspired technique of "controlled aleatoricism". Eh?

Tom Service described this scary-sounding idea rather brilliantly as: 
"a magnificently obfuscatory term for something incredibly simple: basically, giving orchestral players material to play without precise rhythmic co-ordination, so you can create textures in which you know what pitches you're going to hear, but not exactly in what combination or at what speed. It's an easy way of conjuring a controlled chaos and a complex but relatively static texture."
Aleatory passages crops up in work after work from the period leading up to Venetian Games onwards, even in many of his final works - though the composer did rein it in as time went on. The effects achieved are not displeasing nor uninteresting. A fine composer is not handing over his composition to improvising performers. He's just giving them a little bit of freedom to play around with the rhythm of short passages, thus introducing a small measure of unpredictability into parts of his music. Sometimes, it has to be said, these passages do sound less interesting that the fully-composed material that surrounds them.

The works that lead up to Venetian Games, where the composer was first attempting serial composition, contain a number of fine works. One of my favourites, the at-times-beautiful, at-times-magical Five Songs to Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna’s poems of 1957, is currently unavailable on YouTube. Funeral Music, however, written over four years to mark the anniversary of the death of Bartók and close in spirit to the Hungarian giant's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, is available and shows Lutosławski essaying  serialism, albeit in a much more traditional light than Venetian Games. It is a transitional work but  it's wholly consistent within itself and a powerfully expressive piece of music.  

The zenith of controlled aleatoricism was reached in the String Quartet of 1964, if only because the aleatory passages (which he began calling 'mobiles') last longer than in any other piece. This is also the work where Lutosławski tried out a new structural form that he was to make his own - a two movement structure with a short, hesitant introductory movement as then a long, weightier second movement. As in Venetian Games, you also find the composer using signals - often a loud thwack of some kind! - to move between the various episodes within a movement (which became something of a Lutosławski fingerprint). 

Gramophone  magazine's long-time modern music specialist Prof. Arnold Whittall once wrote that these radical pieces of Lutosławski have worn least well. To someone who has heard them (and too much else) before maybe, but if you are new to this kind of music (as I was all those years ago) it won't feel old hat to you. 'The shock of the new' will probably still be there for you, along with its potential for exhilaration. That said, I think Prof. Whittall has a point. I am, returning to these pieces, less taken with them than I was first time round. (Older? More conservative tastes?)

Perhaps the work that sums up this period is the Symphony No. 2. A game of two halves, as football commentators like to say, it embodies the new structure mentioned above. There's a first movement called 'Hésitant' and a second movement called 'Direct'. The colourful 'Hésitant' presents a series of seven 'episodes' for various combinations of instruments, separating them with a (much varied) 'refrain' for winds.  Pierre Boulez conducted this symphony, and Lutosławski comes as close as he ever did to Boulez in this movement. 'Direct' is, well, much more directed (as it were), with seething swarms of sound (not dissimilar in many ways to those swarming around works of the time by Penderecki, Ligeti or Xenakis) scouring our ears for a quarter of an hour.  It's not a piece particularly close to my heart.

Now let's return to those that are. If you are someone who wants a strong melodic component in a work, these radical works of the 1960s aren't the place to look. Right at the heart of the decade, however, stands Paroles tissées - a piece Peter Pears (Britten's life partner) brought to a worldwide audience. The tenor part is fully composed and the aleatory parts are there as aids to poetry. It's in pieces like this that you hear the composer's links to Ravel most clearly. Try the delicate impressionism of the second song ('Quand le jour a rouvert les branches du jardin') for evidence of that.  From Ravel it's not too much of a leap to recall the exotic (middle period) Szymanowski again in the final song ('Dormez cett pâleur nous est venue de loin') - a very beautiful number.

The Cello Concerto (from the close of the decade) is another very direct piece, albeit dramatic rather than lyrical and poetic (not that it entirely lacks those qualities - as we shall see. Everyone who hears the concerto can hardly fail to perceive it as a drama starring the cello as The Individual who comes into conflict (Peter Grimes-like) with the orchestra. Sometimes engaging with them in 'dialogue', even attaining harmony with them at one point, the cellist is a figure fighting a tough battle to be heard and understood. The brass act play an aggressively disruptive role and are clearly the villains of the piece. The man who brought this piece to the world's attention, Mstislav Rostropovich, read this drama in political terms (apt for a man in conflict with the Soviet authorities) and projected the piece forcefully. Tom Service's article airs the issue well. As for melody, well just listen to the concerto's third movement, headed 'Cantilena' - a word that (alongside 'cantando') was to become quite common in Lutosławski's later works. Some of the melodic turns of this movement seem (to my ears) to be echoed (deliberately?) in the Fourth Symphony two decades later.

I now come to two Lutosławski scores that are particularly dear to me - a pair of absolute masterpieces composed at around the same time as other other (the mid 1970s), namely the very beautiful single-movement song-cycle Les espaces du sommeil ('Spaces of Sleep') and the equally beautiful single-movement orchestral piece Mi-Parti. I'm not sure quite how but until this week I'd never come across Mi-Parti before. It had somehow slipped my net on my early trawl through the composer's output. I am so glad to have discovered it. Having always loved Les espaces du sommeil to find an orchestral work that complements it so well has been a joy. The song-cycle, setting the surrealist poems of Desnos, again reflect a Ravelian sensibility at times, having a highly refined use of orchestral colour. The vocal line is no less full of character. The central section, an Adagio, is most magical - a deeply poetic passage of calm mystery. Slowly shifting string chords punctuated by gentle glissandi create the calm mood and the magic is added to by the birdsong-like decorations provided by the woodwind, percussion and brass. The outer sections are more dramatic and the ending is a delightful surprise. Mi-Parti strikes me as being as dream-like as the central passage of Les espaces du sommeil - a beautiful orchestral nocturne. There is a violent eruption but the work comes through it and a classic Lutosławski string cantilena emerges, moving towards the highest registers, as the work enters its captivating and poetic final phase.  

And after Mi-Parti Lutosławski's music changes again and enters its final phase - a period book-ended (roughly-speaking) by the composer's two final symphonies. The Symphony No.3 begins with music that still strongly reflects the modernist strains of his art - episodic structure, aleatory passages, 'signals' and 'refrains', and the downplaying of melody - but this introductory fantasy of fragments eventually proceeds into the work's main section where toccata-like themes begin to drive the music on and it's not long before we get our first 'cantando' theme, rich and melodic. The music surges on and the symphony's central passage concentrates on polyphony, reaching many a rousing climax. So far the composer has still been pursuing his own, contrarian approach to traditional symphonic writing (i.e. avoiding it), however, anticipating the melodic wonders of the Fourth Symphony, the Epilogue of Lutosławski's Third allows the full and extended blossoming of another 'cantando' theme in a way that feels 'properly' symphonic. Its first appearance is mysterious and subdued but its soon bursts into full flower magnificently, then withdraws again into 'night music', winds itself up once more excitingly, disappears briefly and then returns magically on solo horn - music that positively shines like the surface of the Vistula at sunrise -, climaxes in a somewhat Bartók-like fashion then finally gives way to a colourful dash to the end - truly magnificent music, that transfigure all that has gone before it in the symphony.

At the other end of this late period comes the Symphony No. 4 - a particularly gorgeous work, where Lutosławski's early devotion to Debussy and (especially) Ravel can be heard yet again and where the composer's long reluctance to connect himself wholeheartedly to the great symphonic tradition abates considerably. A one-movement work in his trademark two-section form, the lovely 'introductory' section introduce's the work's themes and builds suspense. The aleatory passages fully merit their place and even the brass interruptions cannot stop the flow of unquenchable beauty here - especially the great outpouring of lyrical string melody with which this section ends. The second ('main') section opens delightfully with new material we will keep meeting in new clothes as it proceeds. After a short aleatory passage, a richly-scored string 'cantando' begins, reintroducing a lyrical note (soon to be taken up by solo winds), set alongside dramatic gestures. A sort of magical 'night music' interlude follows, itself followed by a radiant dawn of sun-bright melody - another string 'cantilena', colourfully counterpointed by the rest of the orchestra. After a dense build-up the symphony climaxes on a fierce chord. The aftershock of this ('scared' string solos, a fearful hush) is followed by a brief, loud and exciting closing passage. This is the sort of piece that those who savoured the Concerto for Orchestra should also enjoy (despite its more modernist aspects). Like the Concerto for Orchestra, it's another of my own favourites.

The Fourth Symphony was to be Lutosławski's final large-scale masterpiece, but there are others from the years between these two late symphonies. There's another enchanting orchestral song-cycle for starters, and one (as who might have guessed) where the Ravelian side of  Lutosławski comes out unashamedly - Chantefleurs et Chantefables ('Songflowers and Songfables'). The Frenchman's L'Enfant et les sortilèges seems particularly close here. There are nine songs: 1.La belle-de-nuit ('The Marvel of Peru'), 2.La sauterelle ('The Grasshopper'), 3.La véronique ('The Speedwell'), 4.L'églantine, l'aubépine et la glycine ('The Wild Rose, the Hawthorn and the Wisteria'),  5.La tortue ('The Tortoise'), 6.La rose ('The Rose'), 7.L'alligator ('The Alligator'), 8.L'angélique ('The Angelica') and 9.Le papillon ('The Butterfly'). There's plenty of humour as well as poetry in the cycle, and magic is found in song after song. I cannot recommend this piece enough. As you can tell, it's another of my favourites; indeed, I think it's my favourite Lutosławski piece of all.

If you think late Lutosławski is beginning to sound as if it's music that could speak to those less sympathetic to modernism, well it is! The Piano Concerto understandably went down a storm with audiences when it first appeared. This is probably a very flippant thing to write but imagine if Bartók and Ravel had been asked to collaborate and write the Warsaw Concerto instead of Richard Addinsell and you might get some idea in advance of what this concerto sounds like! Well, perhaps that's taking it too far, but the concerto's occasional (and widely noticed) skirting of the spirit of Chopin shows that this isn't a piece in the same spirit as Venetian Games, or for that matter the Third Symphony. Lutosławski was undoubtedly reintegrating his first loves into his later works, and doing so with a degree of Romanticism not heard in his music since its earliest days. Of course, there are modernistic touches throughout the piece but they won't scare too many anti-modernist horses who happen to be listening.

This late period was notable for one new technical process - the 'chain' process, which you may have noticed in the list at the top of the post prompted three pieces entitled 'Chain'. This is as simple to explain as 'controlled aleatoricism'. It just means that the piece is build from a string of episodes (he calls them 'sentences') which overlap each other at their respective ends. It's as simple as that. Or to put it another way:
This late period was notable for one new technical process - the 'chain' process, which you may have noticed in the list at the top of the post prompted three pieces enttihtleid 'Cshaiins as simple to explain as 'controlled aleaItorticijsmust means that the piece is build from a string of episodes (he calls them 'sentences') which overlap each other at their respectivIe et'ndss as simple as that.
Hope that clarified things! If it doesn't Chain 1 and Chain 3 hopefully will.

Chain II took its place in a glorious late Triptych comprising PartitaInterlude and Chain 2. This has become a large-scale violin concerto, with the Interlude providing a purely orchestral resting place for the soloist at the heart of the composite piece. The masterly Partita again allows Lutosławski's roots in Bartók to show through, offering us music of considerable intellectual and emotional clout. At times motoric, at times meditative, the work is essentially melody-driven (a tough, chromatic strain of melody). The Interlude, in  contrast, is primarily harmony-driven and is another of those quiet, slow movements, a sort of Ivesian nocturne, full of poetry and mystery. Chain II merits being linked up to the Partita, having some of the same characteristics. It is rather more scherzo-like, however - though it's a darkish scherzo (as so many scherzos have been throughout history). Again, it's music of great substance. The Triptych provides us with a final masterpiece to end this post.

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!

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