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ClassicsOnline Home » LUTOSLAWSKI (THE BEST OF)
Best of Lutoslawski
The composer, conductor and pianist Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists in the history of twentieth century Polish music. His significant oeuvre includes four symphonies, three solo concertos (for cello, piano, and a double concerto for oboe and harp), vocal works (notably Paroles tissées, Les Espaces du Sommeil and Chantefleurs et Chantefables) and a string quartet.
Born in Warsaw on 25th January 1913 he began piano lessons at the age of six and composed his first notated piece at the age of nine. Between 1927-37 he studied piano and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory under the tutelage of Jerzy Lefeld and Witold Maliszewski respectively, as well as mathematics at Warsaw University. During the years of German occupation (1939-45) Lutoslawski, together with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), managed to eke out a living in Warsaws cafés playing arrangements for piano duet of over two hundred works ranging from Bach to Debussy. After the war he joined the music department of the Polish Broadcasting Company, writing scores for radio, theatre and film.
But Poland was soon to be subjected to yet another loss of freedom, coming under the yoke of Stalin and the new cultural doctrine of Socialist Realism in the arts. In a specific reference to music the Minister of Culture, Zhdanov, indicated the new constraints under which composers would now have to work by declaring that "Dissonance is the enemy of the people". During this period Lutoslawski composed the overtly neo-classical First Symphony (1941-47), which was subsequently banned as "formalist" in 1949. There then followed a period of discovery during which he turned to folk music as a potential source of raw compositional material. This period saw the creation of the Little Suite (1951) for orchestra, the Silesian Triptych (1951) for soprano and orchestra, and the Bukoliki (1952) for piano. The ne plus ultra of these folkloric works is undoubtedly the exuberant Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54).
In the political and cultural thaw that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 (including the birth of the illustrious Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music in 1956), Lutoslawski was finally able to put into practice some of the compositional techniques which he had hitherto only been able to study. These included the 12-note technique which he discovered was not particularly suited to his artistic sensibility. Of much greater significance to his own stylistic development was the application of a technique that he described as limited aleatoricism. "This means using chance elements to enrich the rhythmic and expressive character of the music, without in any way limiting the authority of the composer over the final form of the work". The technique, a central trait of the composers mature style (and related to the fundamental role that texture plays in Lutoslawskis music), was first used in Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) and refined in Trois poèmes dHenri Michaux (1963) and the String Quartet (1964).
The composer first attracted widespread attention on the eve of the Second World War when, at the age of twenty-six, he composed the effervescent Symphonic Variations (1936-38) in which the influence of early Stravinsky is clearly discernible. Formally the work is divided into an opening theme and seven variations plus an extended coda. The general sound world of the brief Overture for Strings (1949) is illustrative of Lutoslawskis post-war preoccupation with the music of Bartók in this case Bartóks Divertimento for Strings in particular whilst the four-movement Little Suite (1951), originally commissioned by Polish Radio, uses folk melodies from the village of Machów (in the region of Rzeszów east of Kraków) which Lutoslawski heard at a festival of Polish folk music. The most important of Lutoslawskis folk-based works is the aforementioned Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), one of the works composed under the constraints of Socialist Realism, the melodic material of which is from Masovia, the region around Warsaw. The three-movement work was first performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Witold Rowicki (its dedicatee) on 26th November 1954 and was an immediate success. With its brilliant orchestration, dazzling textures, and stirring dance rhythms it remains one of the composers best-loved works.
The hieratic Funeral Music (1956-58) for string orchestra undoubtedly raised Lutoslawskis international profile. Dedicated to the memory of Bartók, throughout its four related movements (all based on a highly individual application of the 12-note technique) a note row constructed from minor seconds and augmented fourths develops canonically. The prevailing mood of grief and despair is brilliantly portrayed within a tightly controlled musical form. Lutoslawski dates his own maturity as a composer from Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) for orchestra, in which limited aleatoricism is used for the first time throughout the various ad libitum sections each player has the freedom to choose his own tempo. Written for and dedicated to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the dramatic Cello Concerto (1969-70) counterpoints the rhapsodic solo part with the essentially disruptive role of the orchestra. This powerful work reaped the annual award of the Union of Polish composers for Lutoslawski in 1973. Of the many arrangements made for the Lutoslawski-Panufnik piano duet only one survived the Warsaw Rising, the Paganini Variations (1941), a transcription of Paganinis twenty-fourth caprice for solo violin comprising the theme and twelve variations. Lutoslawski returned to his arrangement of the work in 1978 and recast it for piano and orchestra. Chain II (1985), subtitled Dialogue for violin and orchestra, was first performed in Zurich on 31st January 1986 by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Collegium Musicum, conducted by its dedicatee Paul Sacher. The title of the work refers to the technique of form-building in which chains are created by the overlapping of sections. The four-movement Piano Concerto (1987-88) was written for the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the Salzburg Festival. The lyrical first movement is followed by a brisk moto perpetuo. The cantilena of the third movement highlights the singing nature of the piano, whilst the last movement is a playful appropriation of the Baroque chaconne.