La mer – three symphonic sketches Lutosławski
Concerto for Orchestra
Truls Mørk (cello)
Woven Words – Lutosławski Centenary 2013 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen with Truls Mørk – Concertos for Cello and for Orchestra ... Debussy's La mer
Thursday, March 07, 2013 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Continuing the Philharmonia Orchestra’s tribute to Witold Lutosławski in his centenary year, Esa-Pekka Salonen opened this concert with one of the Polish composer’s favoured French works. Debussy subtitled La mer “three symphonic sketches” but Salonen was rather too rigorous throughout; his unfolding of this wondrous score was taut and concise, eschewing suggestion. There was no lack of poise or lucid detail though, the Philharmonia fine-grained and turning on a sixpence if not always required to achieve the quietest of dynamics. If the outer movements (the finale without the ad lib brass fanfares) had a sense of inevitable direction, the performance overall suffered from a shortage of evocative incident and a surfeit of primary colours. The central panel, ‘Jeux de vagues’ (Play of the Waves), lacked nothing in energy but this should not be confused with exuberance. This was a good La mer, well prepared and sure of itself, but this is music with infinite possibilities, very few of which Salonen explored.
At the behest of the (bicentennial) Royal Philharmonic Society (hence the bust of Beethoven on the platform), Lutosławski composed his Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich (who else!). It was first performed at this venue in October 1970 with Edward Downes conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Opening with the cellist’s monosyllabic daydreaming (repeated Ds) Truls Mørk gave a performance that was as much to do with what is written as with anything theatrical or invented. Such balance was about right for Lutosławski didn’t offer anything extra-musical, although he did point to characterisation. From such opening whimsy, developing in complexity and significance, the abrasive putting-down interruptions by the brass added a thrilling charge. The writing for woodwinds took on a Brittenesque tinge here, beguilingly, and if one wonders what in the orchestra is complementary to the soloist, certainly in league with his fellow-strings at times, there was no doubt as to what is viciously confrontational, signifying the oppression of the individual, cramped in a cell, sadistic gaolers on patrol. Mørk was deeply impressive, not least the way he absorbed grace notes into the expression, continuing to free-think despite the orchestral onslaught, magnificently rich and dramatic, heading for cataclysm under Salonen’s unstinting direction for a composer he reveres, Mørk indefatigable and reiterating with greater intensification for the final bars.
Concerto for Orchestra is from an earlier phase of Lutosławski’s varied creativity. Completed in 1954 this is music that is accessible, folksy and kaleidoscopic. There are plenty of opportunities for solo display but not at the expense of thematic development and a through line. Over tolling timpani (slightly too loud here and masking of other detail, the piano inaudible) Lutosławski launches an impassioned ‘Intrada’, propulsive and trenchant and not without ‘popular’ asides. It’s cut short though, a prelude to the ‘Capriccio notturno e Arioso’ that follows, music that flickers spectrally at speed, weaves sacred modulation into the texture and expands gloriously; with an ideal, articulate tempo it was given a perfectly primed and precise outing. The large-scale finale, ‘Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale’, can easily drag and sag (maybe why Paul Kletzki makes a cut on his Decca recording!); but not here for Salonen (again) kept the rein tight – this time to distinct advantage – through block-chord dissonance and euphonious melody, the fierce and filmic ‘Toccata’, which really took off, and bound now-familiar motifs into a grandiose conclusion, breaking loose for a final sprint to the finishing post, clinching Gold in the process. This meticulous and authoritative performance was brilliant and compelling, Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra forming a grand partnership.