The first reviews of Lutosławski concerts at the Royal Albert Hall are coming in. The Adam Mickiewicz Institute revels in success.
Thomas Søndergård conduction a BBC Proms concert in 2013, photo: BBC / Chris Christodoulou
One of the main attractions of the 119th edition of the festival are celebrations linked to the Lutosławski Year. While concerts take place till the 4th of September, a couple of weeks into the programme, performances of the Polish composer's works prove to be "the perfect Proms piece"
Promming has been a popular London summertime activity since 1895. It implies standing in the Arena or Gallery areas of the Royal Albert Hall to take part in the performance of classical music by world-class musicians. Up to 1,400 standing places are available for each BBC Proms concert, for traditionally low prices of just £5. An eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts, which this year spreads over several weeks from mid July until early September, comprises over 90 acts.
One of the main attractions of the 119th edition of the festival are celebrations linked to the Lutosławski Year. The inaugural concert on the 12th of July featured the composer's popular Variations on a Theme by Paganini played by Stephen Hough and the much-loved BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. Writing for Seen and Heard International, Colin Clarke calls it "Brilliantly spiky and bright, it is the perfect Proms piece. A triumph". This piece is featured on a CD of Lutosławski compositions interpreted by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. "Many of these pieces feature in the Proms programme", Ewa Bogusz-Moore from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which supported the release of the CD, says on the Polish Radio broadcast on the 15th of July, in her interview with Szczepan Rybiński.
Among Poland's outstanding composers and a leading figure in the realm of 20th-century music, Lutosławski, who passed away in 1994, "played here himself several times. But this time his Cello Concerto was performed in the Royal Albert Hall" the critic Dorota Szwarcman writes in her blog, coining the term "the very Polish Proms". The Cello Concerto performance took place on the 17th of July. Led by Thomas Adés, it was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and soloist Paul Watkins.
The piece was written by Lutosławski in 1969-70 as a result of a conversation with Mstislav Rostropovich, the Azeri-born Soviet cellist and conductor considered to have been the greatest cellist of the second half of the 20th century. Rostropovich had asked Lutosławski several times to write a concert for cello. Writing for the official website of BBC Music Magazine, Helen Wallace is one of several journalists to comment on the Concerto,
Played by soloist Paul Watkins with disarming indifference (as marked). In this starkly dramatic work the cellist is pitted against orchestral forces in what, too, becomes a dance of death, the cello hunted down into sobbing exhaustion. Watkins is an elite instrumentalist who is free to revel in such a complex role; together he and the orchestra articulated their fraught dialogue with such rhythmic verve one could almost imagine the words. After the soloist’s five minute opening the trumpets' impertinent interruption struck a note of high comedy, while the lamenting Cantilena for which the strings swarm around the soloist was powerfully moving. His encore, Lutosławski’s delicate Sacher Variation for solo cello, continued the conversation in intimate style.
On 7th August Edward Gardner and BBC Symphony Orchestra accompanied Louis Lortie in his performance of Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto. In an interview for Channel 2 of the Polish Radio, the pianist said ''It's not easy to find a XXth century piano concert written with such deep understanding for the wide range of possibilities of the piano". He continued,
This concert is an extremely demanding piece. It's almost impossible to play it by heart without intensely practicing it 2 or 3 years beforehand. One of the difficulties that awaits the soloist in particular is the complexity of the rhythmic layer. Throughout the entire concert he is forced to play in opposition to the orchestra. Some parts are written are in a way that when you look at the sheet music you get the impression that they will never sound well, that they surpass the physical possibilities of playing them. But in the end the piece is written in such an excellent way that everything falls into its rightful place.
In his Guardian review, Andrew Clements wrote that Louisa Lortie may not possess Krystian Zimmerman's phenomenal subtlety (for whom Witold Lutosławski wrote the Piano Concerto) but he can transmit the crystal clear concentration with which Lutosławski composed. ''Lortie showed what Lutosławski owed to the rich tradition of piano concerts: from Chopin to Bartók''.
On September 19th, the music of Krzysztof Penderecki met with the work of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. Under the guidance of Charles Dutoit, the musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, three violoncellists, (Leonard Elschenbroich, Daniel Müller-Schott and Arto Noras) performed the Concerto Grosso. Writing for backtrack.com, Edward Whitney said that the musicians made the highly repetitive piece into something complelty underpredicatble, he went on to say,
The balance between the cellos and the orchestral accompaniment was strikingly good. It allowed for the development of motifs as a whole ensemble and when the accompaniment fell away, the cellos indulged in some emotionally wrought melodies both in harmony and at odds with one another. [...] The piece worked so well in terms of composition and performance, that I am left wondering why the Concerto Grosso form is so underused.
The 55 concerts that took place within the 2013 BBC Proms was an authentic feast of Polish music. On the 23rd of August, playing at the Proms for the first time, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra with Antoni Wit performed Witold Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and Andrzej Panufnik's Tragic Overture and Lullaby. Polish composers were performed alongside the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Tim Ashley reminded Guardian readers that, "the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Antoni Wit are probably best known in the UK for their extensive, consistently fine discography, released mainly on Naxos. Their overdue Proms debut also marked the end of an era, since it was the final concert in Wit's 12 year tenure as artistic director." He continued,
Wit and his players have Lutosławski in their blood: the Concerto for Orchestra was by turns dazzling and emotive, the Scherzo flickering with unease, the Passacaglia shuddering animalistically into life, the Toccataat once thrilling and exact. Andrzej Panufnik was represented by two works. The Tragic Overture, written in 1942, and performed with noble fury, is a fierce indictment of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Lullaby ,meanwhile, a product of Panufnik's long British exile, was inspired by the sight of a full moon during a walk across Waterloo Bridge on a misty night. A folk melody wafts in and out of focus amid an eerie miasma of strings. It was exquisitely done.
Full programme of the festival available at bbc.co.uk/proms.
Editor: MJ 05.08.2013, based on a text compiled by Filip Lech
Additional sources: BBC Music Magazine, Seen and Heard International, BBC Proms website