At the start of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, the soloist muses absentmindedly on a series of repeated Ds, before elaborating in more discursive vein. Then, suddenly, the quiet soliloquising is shattered by an angry interruption of trumpets. It’s the strangest opening to a concerto in the classical canon. About half an hour later, after sustaining a constant battery of attacks and humiliations from every section of the orchestra, the solo cello rises again – defiant and alone. As played by Truls Mork, the Cello Concerto provided a powerful centrepiece for this latest concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s centenary tribute to the Polish composer.
A few months ago it looked as if Lutoslawski’s ultra-civilised aesthetic might have a similar battle to hold its own in a year in which the Wagner, Verdi and Britten anniversaries would surely drown it out. But far from being sidelined by their more familiar oeuvre, his voice is sounding more confident and durable than ever, as this exquisitely planned and executed Philharmonia series has demonstrated. The sequence of four concerts – the last is on March 21 – represents far more than a token homage. The orchestra’s principal conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, knew the composer personally, has recorded most of his orchestral works and conducted this concert with the sort of go-for-broke conviction and enthusiasm that transmits waves of enlightenment.
In all his public pronouncements Lutoslawski insisted his music had no programmatic content: it was abstract. That may be true of the Concerto for Orchestra, which received a thrilling performance in the second half of the concert, but it’s hard not to interpret the Cello Concerto as an allegory for the voice of courage in the face of totalitarianism and, yes, torture. Written for Rostropovich, it’s a piece no western European composer could have written, and Mork turned it into an opera without words, creating a still, sentient voice at the centre of the orchestra’s rage.
The concerto was prefaced by Debussy’s La Mer – a useful context for Lutoslawski, who drew inspiration from French concepts of harmony, lucidity and expressive beauty. But Salonen’s blockbuster performance lacked the stylistic acuity he brought to the Polish master.