Friday, 22 March 2013

Mysterious Lutosławski Ravel Salonen Philharmonia

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Witold Lutosławski series at the Royal Festival Hall confirms his reputation as an authoritative Lutosławski interpreter. He knew the composer personally, but more importantly understands his idiom intuitively. In this superb concert, Salonen and the Philharmonia brought out the strange, intangible duality that makes Lutosławski's music so intriguing. Salonen's Philharmoinia series follows Simon Rattle's  Lutosławski series last year with the Berliner-Philharmoniker. Both conductors bring their own insights. Comparison is pointless. Salonen, however, has the edge because he stresses the elusive nature of the music. In this programme, he paired Lutosławski with Ravel with surprising results: Ravel has rarely sounded so magical.

Ravel Ma mère l'oye is best known as a ballet, but it's not necessarily episodic story telling. Instead of crude cartoon colours, Salonen and the Philharmonia produced luminous, gossamer-like textures infused with light.  If the tempi were a little slow, it was defined with real delicacy of touch, so it really did feel that the music was hovering in mid-air. This was Mother Goose for adults, with hints of hidden terrors.

In his extensive writings, Lutosławski said that we hear music in the context of our feelings. Salonen's Ravel thus created a mood from which Lutosławski 's Symphony no 4 (1988-92) flowed naturally. This symphony is short, but in 22 minutes it unfolds with the compactness of a much larger piece. Dark chords suggest foreboding. A solo clarinet appears, its bright textures luring us deeper into the piece. Strident strings suggest alarm, or danger : the pace quickens, pauses and returns with wild, driven legato. Strings like whips,  faced off by a solo trumpet, piano, and a trio of trombones.  Perhaps we are in some strange forest, where the flute flutters like an elusive woodbird.  The whole orchestra soars towards a wild climax, which suddenly disintegrates once more to solo clarinet and flute.  A short passage for small drum and percussion, oddly reminiscent of The Rite Of Spring and the music disappears, elusively. What might Lutosławski  be suggesting? Primed by Ravel,  I thought of Jean Cocteau's film  La Belle et la Bête.  Lutosławski's 4th is a Salonen speciality. He recorded it within months of the premiere. We were privileged indeed to hear him conduct it with the Philharmonia.

Matthias Goerne was the soloist in Lutosławski's Les espaces du sommeil (1975). This was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but Goerne is well on the way to putting his distinctive stamp on the piece.  The text is by Robert Desnos, the surrealist who died in Terezin. Lutosławski's setting has a hallucinatory quality. Extremes of pitch and volume unsettle any sense of repose. Fischer-Dieskau's voice has a lovely smoky quality on his recording, but Goerne's approach connects more deeply to the character of the music. "Dans le nuit....les forêts s'y heurtent confusément avec les créatures de légende  et cachées dans les fourrées." Goerne begins with a half whispered growl at the lower end of his register, blossoming forth into bright, clear colours that dissipate as soon as they're uttered.  Goerne makes us listen to the composer, rather than to the beauty of the singing per se. His voice is dignified, suggesting the hypnotic pulse of sleep, while his sharp diction reminds us that the mind is alert.  Les espaces du sommeil is a lovely piece but its true wonders lie in its mysteries. Protracted applause after this piece, and shouts of "Bravo!" which we don't often hear from staid RFH audiences.

Lutosławski's Chain 2: Dialogues for Violin and Orchestra (1984-85) is one of three otherwise unrelated pieces in which the composer explores the idea of a "chain" formed of interbraided links. It is almost more than straightforward concerto. In Chain 2, as Charles Bodman Rae writes in hisexcellent notes, "the strands are independent both melodically and harmonically, and their phrases begin and end in different places. The trick is in combining them into a coherent whole."  Jennifer Koh was the soloist, playing with great verve and freedom. Some passages reach such high tessitura that one thinks of Szymanowski, though that might not be deliberate on Lutosławski 's part. The two composers may be Polish, but they occupied very different worlds.

Salonen and the Philharmonia concluded with Ravel's La Valse. My companion had heard snippets of this as members of the orchestra were tuning. We wondered, surely they must know the work so well they hardly need to practise?  Perhaps the reason was that this wasn't any ordinary La Valse, but a much more unusual interpretation. This waltz sounds as if it were being heard through a dream, a dance recreated through the prism of memory and distance. Ravel himself described it as "an impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling motion"  Just as we'd heard Lutosławsk's Fourth through the prism of Ravel, we now hear Ravel through the prism of Lutosławski.  Mysterious, elusive and surreal. 
 Photo : Włodzimierz Pniewski & Lech Kowalski 1992

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