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Lutosławski - London to Warsaw and Italy

photo: Jan Morek /Forum
Witold Lutosławski, Photo: Jan Morek /Forum

The Woven Words festival continues to enthrall London – with sterling reviews and a major Lutosławski concert on the 21st of March. Next the Symphonia Orchestra and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen travel to Warsaw and Italy

The festival dedicated to the music of Witold Lutosławski featured a chamber-music recital at the Royal College of Music, with pieces including Epitaph for oboe and piano, the late work Subito for violin and piano, and Partita for violin and piano – a piece that violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter featured on her U.S. tour with pianist Lambert Orkis in early March, which they will play again in Japan in May and early June.

For the Woven Words concert at Royal Festival Hall on the 7th  of March, the Symphonia Orchestra and Salonen performed Lutosławski’s early masterwork from 1954, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the Cello Concerto from 1970 with soloist Truls Mørk. The Concerto for Orchestra’s “energy and panache” are noted by critic Andrew Clements in his four-star review in the Guardian – as is the debt the piece owes to the composer’s admiration for Béla Bartók’s music. Clements terms the Cello Concerto “startlingly original in the way it reinvisions the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra”. He praises cellist Mørk – “defiant, pleading and intensely lyrical by turns” – and commends that “Salonen expertly deployed the orchestral forces around him” in one of the great cello works of the 20th century.

Salonen, Mørk and the Symphonia then played the piece at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw on the 13th of March to a rapt full house, on a programme of Lutosławski works and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The evening opened with another landmark in the composer’s career, Musique funèbre for string orchestra, which commemorated Bartók’s death and was awarded first prize at the UNESCO Composers’ Tribune in 1959 - the first of the composer’s UNESCO awards. The exacting balance among the string sections and the quality of detail made it both mournful and alerting, with the final halting statements by the first cellist fading, resuming, and concluding.

The Cello Concerto began with Mørk alternating between repetitive neutral pitches and increasingly expressive passages, played with fluid alacrity. Interruptions from blaring trumpets and then trombones lead to concerto’s extraordinary blend of combative confrontation, jolts of humor and ad libitum sections that makes it a fresh experience at each performance. Clements’ assessment of the concerto’s stature in the Guardian review is accurate and enthusiastic - yet the Cello Concerto also enlivens and justifies the concert experience for audiences today, including those who may not be familiar with the canon of powerful cello works.

The concerto’s composition during a period of heightened social and political tension in Poland time is surely relevant to its intensity and volatility - though Lutosławski would as surely have disputed linking the music to events of its day. It was an era when comedy took a knowing edge, from James Bond films to the cabarets of Poland, and the fury in the concerto’s Cantilena movement moves to the Finale is both threatening and exhilarating. Salonen and the Philharmonia had been quiet yet replete in accompanying details, shaping the performance with a restraint that saved much for explosive demands, increasing in force yet growing redundant as the solo cello builds lithe, inventive phrases to the end – and Mørk’s last notes held an astonishing inner appeal.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite opened the concert's second half, before the Symphony No. 4 from 1992. Maestro Salonen has programmed the various concerts with works by Ravel and by Debussy, composers admired by Lutosławski for their superb effects of orchestral colour. In Clements’ review of the London concert, he finds the performance of Debussy’s La Mer “lacking in atmospheric tints and textures”. The Symphonia remained measured and exact while playing Ravel n Warsaw, displaying organic finesse through the suite – one movement ends with a percussive outburst that was silenced with breathtaking control. The display of unison precision set the stage for Lutosławski’s final symphony.

London events, and concerts in Italy

Events continue in London and in Italy on the 16th of March. The Woven Words festival features a day of talks and demonstrations titled Lutosławski and the interior drama: the spaces of dream. The series consultant, Steven Stucky, begins the event with a talk that is followed by the title lecture, presented by Adrian Thomas. Thomas, emeritus professor at Cardiff University, is an author and expert on Lutosławski and on Polish music. His site,, is a rich, lively resource, and his current book project is about the Cello Concerto.

The Woven Words site provides programming information and an Aleatoric Game feature - an effective device for exploring the composer’s innovative approach ( It also has a section of informative, authoritative essays. The contribution by Thomas, Lutosławski – Parallel Lives of a Captive Muse, discusses little-known works by the composer. Some were “never revealed in his lifetime”, including “a modest five-minute cantata in praise of the rebuilding of Warsaw (Warszawie-Stawa!, 1950)”, and others include popular dance songs such as I Am Not Expecting Anyone Today. The composer used the pseudonym Derwid for songs he wrote for Polish Radio, and a disc of these will be released in spring, performed by soprano Agata Zubel, cellist Andrzej Bauer and Cezary Duchnowski on electronics.  

The Philharmonia Orchestra and Maestro Salonen play three concerts in Italy, programming pieces of Lutosławski with works by Ravel and Debussy. They perform at Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavorotti in Modena on the 16th of March, in Udine at Teatro Nuovo Giavanni the following night, and on 18th of March they bring the Concerto for Orchestra to the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. They return to London and the Royal Festival Hall – where they opened the Woven Words festival to acclaim in January – with Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4, the baritone Matthais Goerne in Les espaces de sommeil, and Jennifer Koh as soloist in Chain 2: Dialogue for violin and orchestra.

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