CLASSICAL MUSIC Breaking Chains Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
As reported on Monday, the three main orchestral concerts in the BBC's Lutoslawski weekend - all notably well played - focused on the composer's late works. With one exception, Saturday evening - when the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was conducted by Mark Wigglesworth - offered nothing earlier than the Piano Concerto (1988), in which Martin Roscoe, though stronger on drama than poetry, was a dependable soloist.

Sunday evening's programme - by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis - included nothing before the Cello Concerto (1970). This concert homed in on the Seventies; even the Third Symphony (completed in 1983) was projected early in that decade, its protracted gestation a consequence of the changes that brought the composer's late style into being. This is signalled not only by a pared-down approach to harmony and a new emphasis on melody, but also by such things as "ideas, techniques and mannerisms" familiar from much earlier in the composer's output, as Steven Stucky put it in a stimulating lecture during the Guildhall's Lutoslawski conference last week. Suggestions of it may be noted in the restrained but oddly literal evocation of nocturnal imagery in Les espaces du sommeil (1975), here persuasively sung by David Wilson-Johnson.

The other events offered further opportunities to hear the early output itself: rare neo-classical and other scores from the Communist years and earlier. The Twenty Polish Christmas Carols (1946, but only orchestrated in the Eighties) - unpretentiously performed by the soprano Claron McFadden, the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus and members of the BBC SO under Stephen Jackson in St Giles, Cripplegate late on Saturday - proved models of ingenuity with simple tunes, though somewhat over-wrought. On Sunday there were even two films with music by Lutoslawski.

I continue to find some of his late works problematic. Despite its skills (including deployment of the "chain" technique that helped give the Barbican weekend its title), the Piano Concerto's recuperations of Chopin and Brahms still strike me as backward-looking and empty. The almost Ravelian artifice it exhibits has been noted in Lutoslawski's earlier output too. Yet I find the more "difficult" compositions of the second period can produce a powerful emotional experience. Though I heard it on Radio 3, the Trois poemes d'Henri Michaux (1963) in Friday's BBC SO programme (also under Davis plus, for this choral work requiring two conductors, the BBC Singers conducted by Simon Joly) was direct and compelling. Even the scholars now seem nervous about celebrating such modernist works in these post- modernist times. The BBC's delegation of most of them to the Guildhall could be interpreted as a failure of nerve. The long chain of late "chain" compositions in the first half of Friday's concert, on the other hand, was simply bad programme planning.

It's by no means a banal matter of "middle-period, good / late-period, bad", of course. On Saturday night, the composer's last completed major work, the Fourth Symphony (1993), was magical, blazing and deeply moving; it's also, structurally, surely one of the most sophisticated symphonic compositions of the second half of the 20th century. And on Sunday there were two works suggesting that Lutoslawski on his way towards something new, but by no means there yet, could create some of his greatest masterpieces. The Five Songs (1957-8) - in the London Sinfonietta's valuable but lengthy afternoon sequence, movingly sung by Lucy Shelton and conducted by Oliver Knussen - explore 12-note chords to gorgeous, riveting effect. And the still officially "middle-period" Cello Concerto (magnificently played by Paul Watkins in the concluding concert) deploys, to powerfully dramatic and ultimately individual ends, the sorts of gestures and tonality that compel comparisons between late Lutoslawski and Benjamin Britten.