Ravel
Ma mère l’oye – Suite
Lutosławski
Symphony No.4
Les espaces du sommeil
Chain 2
Ravel
La valse – poème chorégraphique

Mathias Goerne (baritone)

Jennifer Koh (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Witold Lutosławski (1913-94)beside the piano at his home. Photograph: W. Pniewski & L. Kowalski The final London concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s series marking the centenary of Witold Lutosławski was another all-too-rare opportunity to hear some of the Polish master’s substantial works. Here his music was partnered with that of Maurice Ravel – an illuminating choice that offered contrast as well as substantial compatibility. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lutosławski credentials are well known – he worked closely with the composer in the final years of his life – and he impressed enormously in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, shaping its tender phrases with care and subtlety and drawing exquisitely quiet playing the strings. The wind solos unwrapped the opening ‘Pavane’ with effortless delicacy, and the whole performance benefitted from concern for blended textures and naturally flowing lines.
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho Södling It’s quite a leap to the vehement anger conjured in Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony (completed in 1992), but for all its bracing directness, its pairing with Ravel proved to be apt. So much of Lutosławski’s writing is touched by the same brilliance for glowing simplicity as Ravel’s and both make tremendous demands on their performers while asking for tremendous clarity. Even without its concentrated and compelling narrative of mounting violence, Lutosławski’s Fourth would be remarkable for the sounds it conjures: rippling harp motifs, impossibly rich string textures and molten brassy climaxes. But it grips with its anguished momentum, seeming surprisingly close to the stark and enigmatic concerns of Shostakovich’s more brutalised symphonies. Its pull was only strengthened by the Philharmonia’s effortless and dazzlingly colourful playing and the force of Salonen’s no-holds-barred conducting. How can this remarkable piece be such a concert hall rarity?
Les espaces du sommeil – Lutosławski’s 1975 setting for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of Robert Desnos’s poem – delves further into the string colours that the composer so readily exploits in the Symphony. This sleep-state is a disturbed one and Lutosławski ramps up the psychological demons found in Desnos’s text to a startling level. So much of it hangs like a static night-time scene in deep blues, making its climaxes all the more disturbing. Mathias Goerne’s baritone was suitably vulnerable, tracing a mellifluous line through the nocturnal landscape thrillingly realised by conductor and orchestra. The second of Lutosławski’s Chain pieces could almost be considered a violin concerto; certainly it’s a taxing challenge for the soloist, in this case a bitingly incisive Jennifer Koh Jennifer Koh. The title stems from the composer’s notion of a musical structure whose elements are entwined on a common path. Alternating freely interlocking passages with more conventionally notated sections, it offers vigorous Bartókian rhythmic impetus and soaring expressive lines, all of which Koh tackled with relish and panache.
The return to Ravel offered another point of comparison, in the form of the waltz-gone-wrong. This composer rarely played the musical social commentator, but his depiction of the self-destructive force of a Viennese culture, composed in the aftermath of the senseless carnage of World War One, is stingingly satirical and angry – we have, perhaps, the same sense of the helplessness of individuals before uncaring society here as in Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony and Cello Concerto. Salonen drew both silken softness and brutal power from the Philharmonia Orchestra, depicting the pandemonium of the conclusion with more force than I have ever heard, but the sting in the tail might have been truly shocking if Salonen had reined-in his swift initial tempo and turned something truly seductive.

 

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