>Having decided to delve into the the music of Lutoslawski, I started with
>a Naxos disc containing his first symphony and other works.
Excellent choice, if perhaps not somewhat dictated by chance?
>So far, I am quite taken with the second movement of the symphony which
>possesses much mystery of an impressionistic nature. But, the first
>movement leaves me entirely flat. It sounds to me like a hodge-podge
>of the worst aspects of the neo-classical style.
I do not know the finesses of the construction "hodge-podge", but I think
that your trouble may lie in your definition of "The neo-classical style".
Lutoslavski's music has been around for decades. This work was composed
during world war two, and the maestro composed up to his death in 1994.
In this period, the imprint stayed the same, but the appearance changed.
To find a connection between early Lutoslavski and other composers and/or
musical styles, I would turn east instead of west if I were you. Parallels
that come to (my) mind are Bartok, Shostakovitch and Prokofiev rather than
neo-classical western composers. As an advocate of "La Jeune France" I of
course have to speak out for "sincerity" in music. Although Lutoslavski
evidently seems to enjoy himself, this does not exclude this "sincerity".
However, he (especially in his earlier years) was never very explicit in
his explanations on "what's behind", but this is certainly more than just
The opening chord is a dissonant which at once evokes the world of
Russian modernism of the twenties and begin thirties. There is a
stuttering rythm in the first subject, played mainly by the trumpet
which can give the music a playful character, but which gradually
becomes transformed/distorted into something very grim. At the first
recapitulation the trombones come in with a very disturbing dissonant.
Very distinctive in the second subject: although the strings try to push
through a lyrical mood, it is the "nervousness rythmness" of the first
subject that pervades (in brass and percussion) this second subject. In
the development section, the rythm is almost all-pervasive. Shosty's first
and some of his scherzi come to mind if you like, together with something
of the sharp-edged spicy harmonics that were Prokofiev's strength. Overall
there is a remarkable mastery in instrumentation: glittering, effective,
yet (almost) never straightforward. There is e.g. a delightful intermezzo
for some flutes plus glockenspiel/celesta, which is the starting point for
a great build up towards the end. At a point just before the coda the
music comes to a sort of temporary halt, as if it were putting something
in "inverted commas". This something turns out to be the trombone
interruption which was first heard in the exposition. Significance of
this? I'll leave that to your imaginative mind.
And while I'm on the job: here goes for the other movements: The second
movement starts as a "Nachtmusik"in Bartok style. However, this is not
epigonism. The middle section starts with very hushed gestures on the
strings that set off a discourse by the clarinet, soon followed by other
wood and brass. This gradually builds up to a climax and guess who we have
there! The trombone chords again. At this point the tension breakes down
and now there can be no more mistake: what follows is despair. Note how
effectively the piano now makes its first solo entrance accompanying
numerous "diabli in musica" in the trumpet. There is a sense of
inevitability now (that graps me by the throat). Lutoslavski shyly sighs
out one more time on a viola.
Third movement: allegretto misterioso. What looks to start off as
Shosty's third scherzo for the eighth symphony, turns out to be a broody
highly personal and bizarre use of a twelve tone series. I am much
reminded of Alban Berg here who uses twelve tone material also in this way.
Eventually, the music seems to get under way finally, but no, not in the
martellato fashion you might expect from Shostakovitch. An eery dislimbed
waltz develops (note the "muted" xylophone). Then with a fortissimo we're
amidst the horrors of it all. The waltzy passage is repeated and ends on
a high note on which starts what one may call the trio section. What a
mastery instrumentation there! With a rush, we're back to the fortissimo
passage in brass. I do not have the score here to check, but I wouldn't be
surprised if Eastern European irregular dance forms play a major role here
Fourth movement: this seems to pick up where the first movement left
off.The movement is built around one motive really. A similarity perhaps:
Bartok's last movement of the Concert for Orchestra, although I do not see
any immediate "dialectic" argument going on as is in that piece. In the
booklet with the CD Don is listening to (the excellent Antoni Wit and his
great Polish Radio Orchestra forces) it says that Lutoslavski regarded
this symphony as the closing stage of a phase in his carreer where the
organisation of the musical material seemed to lead nowhere. An
interesting, if not cryptic reply says Data in "First Contact". What seems
to me more important than the conclusion that his organisation was leading
nowhere is that he seemed to WANT it to lead somewhere.
Further on you CD is a rendering of the "Jeux Venitiens", a piece Luto
composed I believe in the begin sixties. This marks off a new stage in
his "organisation of musical material". Where John Cage paved the way
for "chance music", Luto was, as far as I know, the first one to use it
in large scale orchestral works. However, this is meta-music, meaning
music about music. It is no more and no less Luto exploring new ways of
organisation, as a kind of vital game. (The "Jeux" in the title is all too
clear, I'll leave it to others to comment on the "Venetian"). This piece
however serves as an excellent starting point to explore the sound world of
the late Lutoslavski of the seventies and eighties. Don't be put off by
the complexity of the sound. It was a phase in music that had to happen.
Not necessarily to get better, as I believe there is no "development" in
that sense. But certainly necessary as music had the obligation to look
the complexity and sometimes ugliness of our time in the face.
I propose you to get also a copy of "Les Espaces du Sommeil", a work for
bariton and orchestra premiered in the late seventies, in my opinion one of
the best vocal scores of the twentieth century. In that work (as there is
text sung) you might get a more explicite clue as to where "somewhere" was.
There is an excellent recording by John Shirley Quirk and Esa-Pekka Salonen
on Sony of that.
What this all in the end lead to is demonstrated in the last work on your
CD, the Chantefleurs et Chantefables from 1991. A wonderful work of the 78
years old Lutoslavski. Here he set again some poems by Robert Desnos which
tell us of butterflies, crocodiles, roses, tortoises and grasshoppers. Can
it be that he finally reached his somewhere?
Now Don, stop asking these interesting questions, and let me start my
Mathew Passion survey.