Unchained melody

Ates Orga surveys the surface charms and structural depths of Witold Lutoslawski, Poland's past master of musical chaos and subject of this weekend's BBC festival

`Even if music can arouse in us associations with the rich world of human feelings, in different people these associations will be quite different... Isn't it part of the great attraction of music that what it says cannot be expressed in any other way?" The latest in the BBC Symphony Orchestra's ambitiously resourced annual modern composer weekends today turns the spotlight on Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). Both censored and celebrated during his lifetime, Lutoslawski's career spanned Poland's post-Tsarist independence years, through Nazi occupation and totalitarian communism, to Solidarity, Lech Walesa and the new-look Nineties. Not finding international recognition until his mid-forties, he was a composer of perennial freshness and self-renewal. "Most people as they grow older," Messiaen once said of him, "are merely confirmed in the traits of their youth, but Lutoslawski grows more and more modern... What could reflect greater credit on a composer than that he prove himself so youthful in his later years?"

Musically, he believed, he empathised most naturally with the perfumed, physically vibrant, suggestive language, the alternately razor-sharp edge, of men such as Szymanowski, Debussy, Stravinsky and Varese. Bartok too, of course. And Janacek and Roussel. And even, for one brief, heady moment (in 1960), John Cage. "I suddenly realised that I could compose music differently from that of my past. That I could progress toward the whole not from the little detail but the other way round - I could start out from the chaos and create order in it, gradually." Order out of chaos, "sculptures made of fluid materials", "the element of chance for the purposes of rhythmic and expressive enrichment of the music without limiting in the least the full ability of the composer to determine the definitive form of the work", "collective ad libitum" - these were the unmistakable marks of his maturity.

Despite a proven eloquence, Lutoslawski professed to dislike writing or speaking about music. "A composer who theorises too much... always seems to me somewhat ridiculous. Music must be able to fend for itself." Invariably he was happier conjuring images than conveying facts: "When I start work, it is as though I am flying over a city and, slowly losing height, I can see more and more clearly the outlines, the streets and houses" or "I regard creative activity as a kind of soul-fishing, and the `catch' is the best medicine for loneliness, that most human of sufferings". The picturesque adjectives in a letter to Rostropovich concerning the Cello Concerto (1969-70) say nothing about the music but everything about helping the player find the "right approach".

The pianist Steven Neugarten worked with him at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which is collaborating with the BBC on the Barbican weekend. "He had very little to say; he was very pleasant, but he didn't seem to want to work in great detail, like an exacting teacher might do with a student. My feeling was that he didn't give much away. There were things which came out of his personal sensibilities which he couldn't analyse, or didn't wish to. He mentioned he'd found some way of writing spare textures for just a few instruments, yet he wasn't actually going to let us in on the secret. Asked if his `chain' technique was an inevitability or a contrivance, he got quite annoyed and wouldn't really answer." "Rather in the same way," recalls Damian Cranmer, director of music at the Guildhall, "he said he didn't conduct other people's music, so he refused to discuss students' works with them. He didn't teach at all. He did masterclasses on his own compositions."

From early in his development Lutoslawski was a sonata man, a dealer in articulate, organic, symphonic thought. The "extraordinary strategy" of Beethoven fascinated him. Haydn's likewise - "the model of a perfectly balanced large-scale form". Opposing Peter Stadlen's rejection of him as "a symphonist in distress", Adrian Thomas, professor of music at Cardiff University, argues that "what in fact he was intent on doing was looking afresh at the major forms, not just the symphony but also the concerto.

The Cello Concerto, for example, has always for me been one of the high points because he's in a way reinvented the relationship between soloist and orchestra. I actually think he was one of the most symphonic composers of his generation - partly in the traditional sense, and partly because he rethought out what a structure could be, and what a symphonic argument can include. The Concerto for Orchestra - the outcome of what he called his `episodic symbiosis with folk music' - is wonderfully refreshing.

It still speaks directly and is without doubt the best piece Poland produced in the 10 years after the war." Paul Watkins, soloist in Sunday night's BBC SO performance of the Cello Concerto, echoes Thomas's enthusiasm. "An incredibly powerful, dramatic, colouristic piece - wonderful. It's what everyone has ever written or said about Lutoslawski. It's beautifully shaped, very easy to pace. Anything but cold or detached."

New performers bring new insights. Watkins finds Brittenesque moments in the Cello Concerto. Andrew Davis, chief conductor of the BBC SO, detects a Mahlerian serenity, almost a late peace, in the Third Symphony. "The problem for the conductor here is not just giving the right hand-signals, it's actually a matter of timing, because silence or pauses in this music play an enormously important part. It's that distinction between three seconds or four seconds which can make the great psychological difference. Lutoslawski worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra quite a lot. They liked him, they respected him; he knew the music, he knew what he wanted. Somebody once said to me that, to be really authentic, you had to get lost a couple of times in performance: apparently he did, but not seriously. It's tricky stuff, you have to keep your wits about you. But I think, really, he was an extremely good interpreter of his music, because he was economical with his gestures but had the elegance, the refinement. As a person, he breathed that delicacy which in a way was so much part of what he wrote. But, when needed, he could certainly be demonstrative and violent."

Lutoslawski's art was about refinement and simplification, about knowing when to stop and how to cadence. It was about contrasts - the shrieks, whispers and speech, the rawness of the Trois poemes d'Henri Michaux, the fragility of Paroles tissees, written for Peter Pears. It was about a lifetime of transition from repetitive recapitulation to on-going, overlapping evolution (the fluid reproductive principle of the "chain" works of the 1980s). That he was formerly overshadowed by his compatriot (and wartime piano-duo partner) Andrzej Panufnik, latterly, in popular estimation, by the darker wildness of Penderecki or the cause celebre of Gorecki, was of no concern to him. He was his own person - privately "extrovert, spontaneous and companionable" (Boguslaw Maciejewski reminds us), publicly "introvert, rather reserved, elegant and withdrawn". The many who came into contact with him speak spontaneously of his modesty and meticulousness, his logic and integrity, his ability to communicate and command. "The most important aim in the work of an artist" was, he considered, "to give the truest form to what he has to communicate". He has had his critics. He has been misunderstood. Beneath its highly polished surface, the depth of his achievement has been questioned. Awe rather than affection has often been a reaction. Yet, of the composers of the second half of the 20th century, Andrew Davis is adamant that he will stay the course. "I think he's a major figure, and in 50 years his work will still be played. The attractiveness of his music for me is its ability to conjure up a world that is violent and chaotic, yet has time to find some kind of order. That was his personality"n

`Lutoslawski: Breaking Chains' is at the Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) from today to Sunday, with Radio 3 broadcasts today at 5.15pm (In Tune) and 7.30pm (BBC SO perf Chain II and III, Trois Poemes d'Henri Michaux, etc), tomorrow at 4pm (Music for Strings) and 10pm (Carols), Sunday at 1.15pm (BBC NOW perf Symphony No 4, Piano Concerto, etc) and 7.30 (BBC SO perf Symphony No 3, Cello Concerto, Mi-Parti, etc), and Monday at 7.30 (London Sinfonietta perf Chain I, Paroles Tissees, Strawchain and Other Songs, etc)

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