Three Pieces in Old Style
Overture ‘St. Francis of Assisi’, Op.302 [London premiere]
Violin Concerto No.2
Jakob Kullberg (cello)
Giovanni Guzzo (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 25 October, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Not your typical RPO programme and with a clunky title: “Polish Contemporary Music Across Europe With Friends”. Perhaps it was the heavy dose of the unfamiliar that kept the faithful away; whatever the reason, an abysmally small audience for heard two astonishing soloists and a mouth-watering programme celebrate Poland’s presidency of the European Union and assert a convincing case for Poland having one of the most ravishing musical traditions of the twentieth-century.
Fitting, given the EU presidency, to begin with a composer whose signature sound places him as firmly within a broader Eastern European school as it does a more specifically Polish one. Henryk Górecki, who died last year, found late fame with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, though it’s often cited as atypical of his work. The first of his Three Pieces in Old Style, though, immediately foreshadowed the surging and swelling string-dominated tumult of the ubiquitous Symphony. A rustic Bartokian simplicity makes for a rousing second piece, while the final one recalls the first, with misty clusters hanging over the churning undercurrent before making way for more-resolute music; all generously weighted by the sure body of the RPO strings.
Then, to Witold Lutosławski, mid-century Poland’s leading composer, though one who never acquired the reputation for impenetrability suffered by many of his Western European contemporaries. Even at his most experimental, Lutosławski’s music retains its transparency and fluidity; never more so than in his darkly expressive Cello Concerto of 1970. Any soloist coming to the work sits in the shadow of Rostropovich, the most emotionally searing of cellists and the man for whom the work was composed. Rostropovich’s playing combined unceasing virtuosity with the most unremitting intensity, so it’s hardly surprising that, by comparison, Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg initially seemed a little cool. His opening narration was not as flowing or involved as could be, but he soon dug into his warm and deep tone, and by the end he had ramped up his struggle with the battering orchestra to the level of an anguished scream. Christopher Austin and the RPO navigated the complicated system of cues and overlaps seamlessly. Kullberg returned, joking “let’s play it again!” before offering some unaccompanied Bach with unaffected earthy wisdom; no piety or reverence here.
The break in the concert’s thematic thread was the London première of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Overture St Francis of Assisi, offered between two Polish concertos without explanation, but rewarding nonetheless. Without a more thorough guide to the work than that given by Sir Peter in the programme note, it’s difficult to say which episodes of St Francis’s life were being dealt with in the music, but the interplay of his complex yet carefully orchestrated moments of violent energy and the calming Orkney-inflected plainsong are musically interesting in their own right. Davies’s musical imagination still commands attention, never more so than in the glittering and trilling conclusion.
Finally, a warm embrace of a work: Szymanowski’s ecstatic, even orgasmic, Second Violin Concerto, filling the hall with radiant harmony and power and given a truly magnetic performance by Venezuelan violinist Giovanni Guzzo. Matching Kullberg for warmth and presence, Guzzo’s technique was immaculate, and his Szymanowski was also stylish and driven. He ripped through the cadenza with terrific verve and left me wanting to hear much more from him. If there was a problem, it was that his solo line was often swallowed by the rich orchestral texture, particularly in the work’s opening stages. But this must surely be Szymanowski’s miscalculation and not that of Austin and the RPO, whose contribution was heady and sensuous throughout.