In An Attitude to French Culture the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski remarked "I am aware that of the two traditions that initiated 20th-century music, that is, Schoenberg and Debussy, it is the latter that I feel prevails in my own compositional work". The Lutosławski centenary concert series at the Southbank Centre sought to trace this lineage by programming Lutosławski's music alongside works by Claude Debussy, Albert Roussel and Maurice Ravel. Last night an invigorating programme saw this series come to a thrilling close with the Symphony no. 4 (1988–92), Les espaces du sommeil (1975), Chain 2: Dialogue for violin and orchestra (1984–85) and Ravel's suite Ma mère l'oye (1911), accompanied by La valse (1920).
Lutosławski's fascination with Ravel's music is well documented: he first saw the French composer conduct La valse while still a student in 1930s Warsaw, and would go on to imbue his Piano Sonata (1934) with the colourful chromaticism and debonair mannerisms of his idol. While many composers operating in the 20th century were intent upon presenting disrupted musical structures as an expression of war-torn reality, Lutosławski maintained his faith in harmonic processes as the key to musical expressivity, demonstrating that tonal works were not necessarily redundant ripostes.
Perhaps the most compelling facet to have emerged from this programme was the theme of childlike wonder at the aura of musical sounds. Ravel's Ma mère l'oye tells of the sleeping beauty, beauty and the beast, a wandering midget, an ugly Oriental empress and a mystical fairy garden. This naïve world of querulous flicks and playful pentatonic scales was vividly animated by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Ravel originally composed the work as a piano duet for the children of his close friends the Godebskis. It was a striking choice as a precursor to three works by Lutosławski, who during his own childhood had witnessed the revolutions of 1917 in Moscow along with the execution of his father. Yet the inquisitive nature of these characterful movements (in particular the stoical splendour of "Le jardin féérique") proved to be a stimulating window onto the variegated sonic landscapes of Symphony no. 4, Les espaces du sommeil and Chain 2.
Salonen has a special kinship with Lutosławski's Symphony no. 4, having toured the work extensively in the 1990s. It is among the many compositions that conform to Lutosławski's favourite structural format of "preparation" followed by "main event". The work's brevity (spanning just over 20 minutes in length) and violent swings in mood give it an almost juvenile personality. At the start of this symphony a lone clarinet line soars above a cushion of pulsating strings, but this pattern is interrupted by hysterical glissandi in the upper registers of the harps. The arrival of the "main event" similarly takes place in a series of rushes. As impromptu explosions release a dazzling array of sonorities, the orchestra staggers to regain its sombre melodic lines but is refuted by defiant backlashes from the brass and percussion.
Les espaces du sommeil and Chain 2 received outstanding performances from soloists Matthias Goerne (baritone) and Jennifer Koh (violin). The prose poem Les espaces du sommeil ("Sleep's Spaces") was written by the surrealist poet/writer Robert Desnos in 1926. His words are deftly woven into the gauze-like fabric of Lutosławski's score. The sounds of nocturnal life are echoed with faint chirping noises, ghostly whispers, distant chattering and luminescent bursts signalling the break of day. Goerne's navigation through this musical forest was both sensitive and masterly, approaching each change with renewed curiosity. Koh's rendition of Chain 2: Dialogue for violin and orchestra was equally captivating. With an exceptional control of scratch tones, sul ponticello techniques and grace-note "sobs" she traversed bustling concertante passages and private musings. Her precision of timing ensured that complex transitions between solo and ensemble material were executed to perfection.
Prior to the concert the audience were shown a short film in which Salonen made a case for the value of Lutosławski's artistic offerings. The conceptual richness of the programme served to confirm such an evaluation, and successfully delivered the composer's output in its most effervescent state. To close the concert with Ravel's La valse was an imaginative decision. We were offered a glimpse of the Viennese waltz – once epitomizing civilised culture and high society – bound on a spiralling descent into destruction. With its formal properties dismembered, Ravel's waltz eloquently reviews the hostile sentiments of a post-war world. Appealing to W.B. Yeats, our programme notes concluded: "the ceremony of innocence is drowned".
The meticulously fashioned soundscapes of Ravel form the perfect musical backdrop to this final tribute to Lutosławski in his centenary year.
Les espaces du sommeil ('The Spaces of sleep') is a mesmerising setting of a poem by French surrealist Robert Desnos in which Lutosławski imagined 'the singer is telling us about his dreams,' while Chain 2 continues to explore the element of chance that had been an important part of Lutosławski's music since the 1960s.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the premiere recording of the Fourth Symphony, the crowning achievement of the composer's distinguished career, just three months before the composer passed away.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda