Woven Words – Lutosławski Centenary 2013 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen with Krystian Zimerman – Musique funèbre … Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé

Musique funèbre
Piano Concerto
Daphnis et Chloé

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 30 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingFrom first note to last – from secluded woodland to orgiastic celebration – Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra brought Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé to vivid life while respecting the composer’s subtlety and watchmaker’s precision. Salonen took the ballet score beyond the footlights with a flexibility that was not always ‘for dancing’, agreeably so, and if there were times when the loudest passages had a brazen brilliance these could be justified by the sheer confidence and panache of the performance – conversely the very opening had been daringly hushed, only just audible. If Ravel’s description of the work as a “choreographic symphony” was not always in evidence, Salonen’s imaginative and demonstrative way with it brought its own thrall. It was cutlasses drawn for ‘Danse guerrière’, the pirates here on the rampage to a very nifty tempo, but for all the nimble and precise playing, characterisation was swept out to sea, losing all sense of ‘heavy’ menace. This was the only questionable aspect (aside from the hollow-sounding military drum) in a generally compelling performance, superb in preparation and delivery, which also found the vocalising Philharmonia Voices impeccable, not least in tuning, and Samuel Coles was a ‘magic flute’ indeed, liquidly expressive, as indeed much of the quieter and evocative music had been, shimmering with suggestion in the playing. The closing ‘Danse générale’ was ideally paced and calibrated to its hedonistic pay-off.

Witold Lutosławski (1913-94)beside the piano at his home. Photograph: W. Pniewski & L. KowalskiThus a delirious bacchanal closed the first concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s tribute to Witold Lutosławski in his centenary year (he was born on 25 January 1913 and died in 1994). The Woven Words series (named after Paroles tissées, Lutosławski’s song-cycle written for Peter Pears) is of four London concerts (one played by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, with other events at the College) devoted to the Polish master plus a selection of twentieth-century French repertoire, by Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, and therefore complementary to the Southbank Centre’s The Rest of Noise festival.

The concert had opened with Musique funèbre (‘Music of Mourning’ as translated from the original Polish title), written in memory of Béla Bartók (who died in 1945), Lutosławski missing the ten-year commemoration by three years. Nevertheless his typically painstaking approach to composition yielded a masterpiece for strings that begins bleakly (and poignantly returns there), aches with intense emotion, then becomes feverishly agitated before climaxing on impassioned clusters of sound. One appreciates that the correspondences to the first movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a conscious one, but there is also Lutosławski’s recognisable personal style, fully realised by the Philharmonia’s strings in a stellar performance of solo accomplishment and corporate sheen and depth.

Krystian ZimermanWith the Piano Concerto (1988), Lutosławski had passed through what might be termed his experimental period of the 1960s (yielding at least two masterpieces, the Second Symphony and Preludes and Fugue) to a style that remains totally personal yet having absorbed and filtered his early adventurousness and now seeming to embrace many worlds of previous music without denuding his own particular personality. Thus the Piano Concerto seems, occasionally, to encompass the romance of Rachmaninov and the rhetoric of Liszt, if more so the impressionism and intricacy of Lutosławski’s beloved French masters, yet beginning in spiky and spectral terms. This is music that is refined, impish and rich in ideas and incident, the linked four movements (the middle ones are respectively scherzo-like and deeply slow) made indivisible and inevitable.

Perhaps this is a work to underestimate, for this performance was a revelation. In a piece written for him, Krystian Zimerman gave a stunning rendition that married creative, penetrating musicianship with matchless technique in an outing of significant interaction, the fully resourced Philharmonia Orchestra meticulously rehearsed by the faithful and discriminating Esa-Pekka Salonen.

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