The Southbank Centre’s centenary celebration of Witold Lutosławski, titled Woven Words, can easily be overshadowed by the excitement of this year’s The Rest is Noise festival. The Philharmonia Orchestra know how to promote themselves, however, as the website dedicated to Woven Words is both informative and interesting, and the programme for the festival is comprehensive, with essays from several musicologists and series advisor Steven Stucky.
The works of Ravel and Lutosławski worked very well together. In the opening talk by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Steven Stucky, they briefly lingered on the importance of French music for Lutosławski. Above all, what characterizes both Lutoslawski and Ravel as composers is their enormous talent for creating rich orchestral textures. Also in the talk, Salonen told the listeners that one of the main reasons for having a festival around Lutosławski’s works is to familiarize a new generation with his music. As a member of this next generation, I felt extremely grateful that the music of Lutosławski, until recently unfamiliar to me, was played with the amount of passion and love that the Philharmonia Orchestra and Salonen gave us.
Musique funèbre is an austere and mesmerizing string piece, written for the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death (though it was not actually finished until two years after). The music is more than appropriate as a piece of mourning, it is haunting and never overly sentimental. The Philharmonia’s string players, who, though not reserved, gave an unpretentious and powerful rendition, enhanced the austerity of the piece. The contrasts in the soundscapes that were being created by the orchestra were surprising and impressive, and the overall feeling of the Musique funèbre was one of melancholy, with a slight tinge of hope.
The Piano Concerto was the absolute highlight of the evening. It was written more than 30 years after Musique funèbre and is certainly much more explosive than the first piece played this evening. Krystian Zimerman, for whom the concerto was written, lead us on a journey through extraordinary sounds and melodies that left me both speechless and breathless. Even now I am not sure whether anything I can write will do the piece justice. In fact, I am pretty sure that I have never heard an orchestra sound the way the Philharmonia did tonight. Interestingly enough, there is nothing overwhelming or strange about Lutosławski’s music, despite being unlike anything else I have heard. It simply demands of the players that they use their instruments to the fullest, and the result is one I will not soon forget.
Opening with incredible playing by the Philharmonia’s woodwind section, the Piano Concerto was above all led by Zimerman’s playing, which exhibited so many different styles, sounds, volumes and rhythms that one cannot but be in awe of it. Despite being an extremely energetic piece, its main impression is not one of melody or rhythm, it is all about the atmosphere; it is almost as if the music is capable of painting pictures.
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, a ballet score written for the famous Ballets Russes in Paris, is often performed as two suites. Tonight’s performance of the entire score showed just how much there is to miss. The Philharmonia Voices joined the orchestra in a top-notch performance that was enticing from beginning to end. Written at the beginning of the 20th century, Daphnis et Chloé still sounds as fresh now as it must have done during its first performance. Most memorable is the final “Bacchanale”, which apparently the dancers of the Ballets Russes found impossible to dance to, but is an absolute joy to hear.
The concerts in the Woven Words celebration will continue until late March and I would recommend them to anyone, whether they are familiar with Lutosławski or not. His music is extraordinary and worth exploring: the other concerts will undoubtedly be experiences to remember.