It is an odd coincidence: 2013 marks the anniversary year of four composers whose music is both internationally significant and intimately enmeshed in their respective nations’ sense of identity. The Germans anguish over the ambivalent place of Wagner’s music in their national history; the Italians celebrate Verdi; the British applaud Britten. The launch of Witold Lutoslawksi’s 100th birthday year in Warsaw last weekend felt sharply different from all of these. In the sober elegance of Warsaw’s 1901 Philharmonie, there was a collective intensity that felt more like a meaningful conversation between friends than a gala event.
That Lutoslawski was one of the giants of 20th-century music, that his work had immense international impact, that he was an icon for free-thinking Polish intellectuals – these things are beyond debate. Even so, the extent to which his music clearly speaks to today’s Warsaw public is arresting for the outsider. This music, in its rich complexity, cerebral rigour, structural coherence and fragile emotional expressivity, speaks to this public with a clarity beyond language. Perhaps it is, in part, the legacy of an oppressive regime. New music behind the iron curtain was valued as a means of subversive communication in ways of which the comfortable west could only dream, and those years have left behind them a sense of sincerity and meaning in the way music is received.
Lutoslawski would have turned 100 last Friday, and on Saturday the Warsaw Philharmonic was joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter, the violinist for whom the composer wrote his Chain II and the orchestral version of Partita, and Antoni Wit, the orchestra’s former chief conductor, who knew and worked with Lutoslawski closely. Bogdan Zdrojewski, minister of culture, gave a speech. Mutter was awarded a medal. There were flowers, more flowers, and a standing ovation. Yet all of these things were incidental to the music itself – a monument all the more fitting for its ephemeral nature.
The concert began with the world premiere of a new work commissioned for the occasion. Paweł Szymański’s Sostenuto is a clever, unsettling homage to Lutoslawski, beginning with staccato trumpet notes sustained by a piano, building to a spectacular climax of descending cascades of sound. Szymański creates a seductively beautiful sound world, with nods to Mahler and Beethoven, and has a deft hand for visceral thrill.
On to Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3, with the dark structured chaos of its opening, its romping fugues, scampering vehemence, and floods of light. Under Wit, the Warsaw Philharmonic played with utter commitment and an impressive combination of refinement, polish and warmth.
Mutter’s performance of Partita melded chilling precision with emphatic certainty. Her creamy, even sound forms a stark contrast to the woody, human range of tones produced by the orchestra; the juxtaposition became part of the boisterous interplay of the piece itself.
The gently arch Interlude, written by Lutoslawski to link Chain II to the Partita for Mutter, lead into the latter work, given here with extraordinary momentum and energy. Mutter’s playing ranged from flinty to dazzling, and she hinted at latent vulnerability while the orchestra provided a sense of underlying bleakness and a stained-glass range of luminous colour.