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ClassicsOnline Home » LUTOSLAWSKI: Preludes and Fugue for Solo Strings / Postludes / Fanfares
By Andrew Clements
BBC Music Magazine
By Peter Bates
The Three Postludes occupy a pivotal position in Lutoslawski's output. The serially-influenced harmonic language of Musique funèbre is taken further, resulting in an orchestral complexity that the composer was unable to clarify to his satisfaction. Begun in 1958 and abandoned during 1960, only the First Postlude was realised at a concert celebrating the centenary of the Red Cross, by the Suisse Romande Orchestra and Ernest Ansermet, on 1st September 1963. All three were heard on 8th October 1965, with Henryk Czyz conducting the Krakow Philharmonic. Lutoslawski never encouraged performances of the set, however, and they remain the least played of his major works.
A play of disconnected woodwind and brass motifs against a static harmonic back-drop on strings, the First Postlude is among the simplest of all his pieces in construction, moving to a clearly sign-posted and very definite climax almost at the exact point of the Golden Section, the Pythagorean formal principle employed by many earlier composers, not least Bartók.
The scurrying string and woodwind figures which open the Second Postlude look back to the second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra and forward to the second chapter of the Livre pour orchestre (Naxos 8.553625). Despite the uniformity of material, the musical lines are written so that they sound blurred in their identities. Shimmering hazes of metallic percussion provoke increases in activity, which remains at a low dynamic level until fading out on the ghostly timbres of side drum and tambourine.
The single fortissimo chord which launches the Third Postlude will recur no less than 52 times in the course of the seven-minute piece, punctuating the music in a dramatic though ultimately negative way as it inhibits resulting momentum. The musical content is highly varied in manner and sonority, almost a primer for Lutoslawski's thinking over the following decade. The appearances of the chord merge closer and closer together, then, after a climactic pause, taking over the piece entirely, only to run down, from fortissimo to pianissimo, to an ending both provisional and unexpected. Indeed, what was intended to be the culminating 'fourth postlude' was realised some years later as the magnificent second movement of the Second Symphony (Naxos 8.553169), a sure instance of the composer triumphing over initial adversity..
Written during 1970 and 1972, and first performed by the Zagreb Radio and TV Chamber Orchestra in Graz on 12th October 1972, the Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings brings to a culmination both the format of an 'introductory movement' followed by a 'main movement', evident since the String Quartet of 1964, and the limited but flexible use of chance procedures. Regarding the latter, the composer explains in the score that the work can be performed whole or in various shortened versions. In the case of performances of the whole, the indicated order of the Preludes is obligatory. Any number of Preludes in any order can be performed with or without a shortened version of the Fugue. The Preludes are composed in such a way that the overlapping of the ending of any Prelude and the beginning of any other one is possible.
In a complete performance, as here, the Preludes and Fugue constitutes the longest of Lutoslawski's mature works, and marks the ending of a phase in his development; the search for an idiom in which melody was once again the determining factor was to occupy him for the remainder of the decade.
The call-to-attention gesture which opens the First Prelude will recur at key structural points in the Fugue. Here it mutates into a typically brusque sequence of ideas, none of which can yet bear fruit. The Second Prelude elegantly contrasts pizzicato and arco playing techniques. A soft, sustained discord prepares for the Third Prelude, which again contrasts musical types - here an expressive cantilena for the violins over a pizzicato pattern in the lower strings. From a halting rhythmic gesture, the Fourth Prelude opens out from the note F played on all strings to a sequence of twelve-note chords. This is shut off at maximum intensity, leaving further halting gestures, out of which the Fifth Prelude emerges. A solo double-bass line, at first gruff, then ethereal, occupies the foreground, until the Sixth Prelude gets under way with a plangent duo for cellos, against aggressive repeated notes from the violins. An intricate pizzicato motion introduces the Seventh Prelude, its manic rushing gestures seeming to merge all the activity so far. Yet this peters out abruptly, leaving a static and eerily serene back-drop, from the inactivity of which the Fugue emerges.
Fugue is perhaps a misnomer for what is in essence a fugal fantasy. After an expressive transition, redolent of the opening of Musique funèbre, the Fugue proper starts with the first of six subjects, each of them distinct in sound and expression, and each separated by episodes of freer material. At length the fugal types begin to coalesce in a four-stage contrapuntal complex both elaborate and intense. At the point where all thirteen solo strings are playing separate material at full stretch, a prolonged fade-out begins, gradually stilling the activity until it is no more than a pulsating motion in the bass. A swift, impetuous reference back to the beginning of the First Prelude now cuts in, bringing the whole work full-circle with a curt and conclusive gesture.
The international success which Lutoslawaki enjoyed in later life is reflected in the number of short occasional pieces he was commissioned to write. The Mini-Overture, combining rhythmic incisiveness with evident melodic flexibility, was first given by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble at the Lucerne Festival on 11th March 1982.
As a member of the jury awarding the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize for composition, Lutoslawski wrote the energetic Fanfare for Louisville for the closing ceremony, given by the Louisville Orchestra and Lawrence Leighton-Smith on 19th September 1986. The Fanfare for CUBE was written for the Cambridge University Brass Quintet, to mark the occasion, on 11th June 1987, at which the composer was awarded an honorary degree by the university.
An encapsulation of his late orchestral idiom, Prelude for G.S.M.D. was written to mark a visit to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and first performed by Lutoslawski and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra on 11th May 1989. Fanfare for Lancaster, pungently scored for brass ensemble and side-drum, was written to mark a visit to the University of Lancaster, and first performed there on 11th October 1989.
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