Surprisingly, this was the Warsaw Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, invited as part of this year’s focus on Polish music. About time too, one might say, and particularly so with it being both Lutosławski’s centenary year (and almost Panufnik’s too, shy by a year), and this the farewell concert of outgoing Artistic Director of twelve years, Antoni Wit. It was also only right that they should debut with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed specially for this orchestra – well, an earlier generation – in the 1950s, and they brought a proprietary authority to the work, from the driving timpani thumps of the opening. Lutosławski here uses melodic material from the Polish folk music tradition, but within the context of a highly-structured compositional form, with more than a nod to Bartók and Stravinsky. This was a high-definition performance which paid great attention to all the fine details of phrasing, dynamics, colour combinations and textural contrast, without ever compromising on overall shape or momentum. I particularly liked the light simplicity the wind and string soloists brought to the more obviously folky elements, easing off on vibrato and never over-shaping the melodies. The skittering, fragmentary second movement and jazz-tinged, punchy third whipped through a range of moods and styles which really did act as a showpiece for what the orchestra can do.

Antoni Wit © Chris Christodoulou
Antoni Wit
© Chris Christodoulou

Panufnik was not only a contemporary of Lutosławski’s, but a close friend. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, when public concerts were banned, they formed a piano duo and played their own arrangements of classic repertoire in cafés. However, in 1942 Panufnik was permitted to conduct a charity concert, and composed for it the Tragic Overture, a ferociously aggressive, abrasively dissonant onslaught, in which the brief, innocent-sounding lyrical interludes are in fact fragments of the anti-Nazi protest songs he wrote in secret. The post-war Lullaby is a very different creature – and it is a credit to Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic that they could so effortlessly and immediately change the atmosphere in the auditorium. In this piece, each of the string section principals in turn play a simple pentatonic song, accompanied by lightly-pinging harp droplets – so far, so lullaby-like – but the radically innovative aspect is in the rest of the string orchestra, who drift around in 29-part microtonal clusters. Panufnik intended this to represent dark clouds drifting across a full moon, over a river, and with it, the Warsaw strings created something fragile, hypnotic, and after a while, quite unsettling (in the best way!)

Shostakovich never seems to look very happy in photographs, and he wasn’t happy at the time he wrote his Second Piano Concerto – not that you would know that from hearing it. Witty and light-hearted, it was composed for his son Maxim, and premièred by the boy on his nineteenth birthday. Does that make it youngsters’ music? No, but it absolutely must have a youthful bounce to it, and Alexander Melnikov – widely admired for his Shostakovich recordings – certainly brought the required energy, buoyancy and snap to his performance. However, while the soloist lit the touch paper, the orchestra did not quite ignite. The connection between piano and orchestra did not seem as strong as it might have been, with the offbeat rhythms in the first movement coming a little unstuck at times. The andante was suitably languid and dreamy, teetering on the edge of romantic slush but never quite tipping over. In the final allegro, though, Melnikov was dancing away, but the orchestral passages came across as a little stilted. Called back for an encore, he gave Debussy’s Feu d'artifice (from Preludes).

The second Shostakovich work on the programme was, for me, much more successful overall. In a historical parallel to the Panufnik, this piece was written under the repressive weight of the Stalinist regime – and yet as well as despairing darkness, it contains comedy, this time of a more caustic variety, in the form of a savagely sarcastic burlesque finale. Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony could – like a fair proportion of them, in fact – have been titled Concerto for Woodwind Section, they had so much wonderful material, superbly realised by the Warsaw team. The solos all had great feeling and fluidity, from bassoon up to piccolo, intra-section ensemble was seamless, but I really must give special mention to Krzysztof Malicki on principal flute. The orchestra as a whole gave the impression of enjoying this musical landscape greatly, and neither they nor Antoni Wit appeared to be in any hurry to leave at the end, giving us two more encores (the Gavotte from Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Polka from Lutosławski's Little Suite).

***11