Lutosławski: Woven Words

Helen Wallace reviews an unforgettable performance at the Southbank Centre

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Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen; Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Debussy’s observation, ‘Music begins where words end’ is the tag-line of the Philharmonia’s Lutosławski centenary series, Woven Words. And how true it proved: last night’s opening concert began with a film of Esa-Pekka Salonen discussing his relationship with the Polish composer and admiration for his music. There were tantalising glimpses of Lutosławski conducting, but no sound; his birth-place but no interview. The fragment was from a collection of fine short documentaries on the Philharmonia Orchestra’s website, which I’d urge anyone to investigate. But it was unnecesary here: as soon as Salonen raised his baton for Musique funèbre, the performance told us everything we needed to know about his passionate relationship to Lutosławski’s music.

This extraordinary tour de force was written in memory of Bartók, and evokes the graven, ascetic force of the latter’s art. The 12-tone lament begins in the cellos, and winds up in canon through the orchestra with inexorable tread, a shifting tissue of tritones and semitones: the sense of an immense, invasive power is terrifying. One cannot help but think of the invasions the young composer witnessed in his corner of Poland. Salonen conjured magic in the middle movement, 'Metamorphoses': a hieratic pizzicato melody is edged with tremolo bowing to spine-tingling effect, giving way to bowed lines of searing clarity and beauty. As the texture intensifies and complicates towards the climactic 'Apogee', the Philharmonia strings achieved a deeply satisfying, penetrating resonance, before unwinding the mourning music back to the voice of a single cello.

Lutosławski may cut a marginal figure in the narrative of 20th-century music now, but that will change: his body of orchestral works with their sensuous French-Slavic sound world and tightly cogent construction are set to endure. And his presence felt very close to this packed audience, many of whom will remember his appearances in London at the first performances of Chain 2, with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Chantefleurs et Chantefables at the Proms in 1991. His diminutive, gleaming figure may be lost to us but the legendary Krystian Zimerman’s explosive performance of his piano concerto exhumed the composer’s spirit. 

Always reclusive, and now semi-retired, Zimerman’s touch has lost none of its pellucid quality, infinite tonal variety or virile power. This concerto, written for him, is a riveting, helter-skelter ride, sharing with Bartók’s third a background chatter of birdsong. Beginning tentatively with fluttering wing-beats it gradually draws in the pianist to a dynamic narrative. Only Zimerman could have voiced the racing lines of the Scherzando with such pungent character, only he could thread his artful variations through the orchestra’s final passacaglia with such compelling poetry. The work sounded new-minted; one of the unforgettable performances of this year.

I almost dreaded the prospect of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe after such a momentous first half: the complete ballet has its longeurs, but from the moment the choir began to sing, it was clear Salonen would deliver. This was a high-octane performance with silky woodwind solos, wonderful rhythmic precision from both choir and orchestra and almost painfully bright colours in the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. The Bacchanale ended in a thrilling roar. Ravel’s optimism and opulence threw into relief Lutosławski’s pared-down, tightly-threaded weave, the expression of sadder times. Don’t miss the rest of this illuminating series.

Woven Words continues at the Southbank Centre 6 February, 7 March and Thursday 21 March

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