Moving into a New Year always calls for a celebration, but for Polish people the transition to 2018 is particularly significant. In 1918 – exactly 100 years ago – Poland  regained its independence after more than a century of being absent from the map of Europe. To commemorate this anniversary, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra held a series of concerts with the self-explanatory title, Created in Independent Poland. This Saturday evening, the audience could savour magnificent works by three Polish composers, as well as one by Claude Debussy, also marking a centenary this year.

Jacek Kaspszyk © ICA Artists
Jacek Kaspszyk
© ICA Artists

It certainly was not a concert with an easy listening repertoire, since the pieces included were both modern and complex, especially the Lutoslawski. However, given the precise orchestral performance and the enthusiastic ovation from the nearly fully booked hall, it made for a successful celebration. It began with the rarely performed five-minute Toccata by Bolesław Szabelski, a rhythmically driven and appropriate warm-up piece. The Warsaw Philharmonic, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk, was able to demonstrate its precision and impress the audience with Szabelski’s extraordinary instrumentation, especially toward the end.

When it comes to repertoire, everything happens for a reason. Thus, the next to be heard was the Violin Concerto no. 2 by Karol Szymanowski, who was Szabelski’s composition teacher. Not coincidentally, the piece premiered in the same concert hall and with the same orchestra back in 1933. What can be noticed quickly about this composition is that it was heavily inspired by the musical folklore of the Polish highlands. The soloist who took on the challenge of this technically exacting piece here was Isabelle van Keulen, a violin and viola virtuoso from the Netherlands who made her debut in 1984 when she was selected Eurovision Young Musician of the Year. Van Kuelen was able to capture the ethereal atmosphere of the mountains, especially during the second movement, after the cadenza. As an encore, van Keulen performed Bach’s Air on the G String, a piece which she visibly felt very comfortable with and which was a delight.

After the interval it was time for La Mer by Claude Debussy, included because of the 100th anniversary of the composer's death. It is a piece that is supposed to make the listener feel the sea, rather than hear it in the form of literal musical imitation. It is divided into three symphonic sketches, the third containing the culmination – a dialogue between the wind and the sea. The performance here was decent but rather conservative. The agile play with tone colour throughout all three sketches sticks in the memory.

Witold Lutoslawski openly admitted to being artistically inspired by Debussy, so it was fitting that the last work performed here was his Symphony no. 4, a synthesis and summary of his earlier musical activities. A lot can be said about the complexity of this works, but perhaps the most striking is the usage of the so-called controlled aleatorism, a technique which makes the listener perceive the piece as if it was improvised while, in fact, it is not. Here one can notice a parallel with Debussy, who once said he wanted to bring back a sense of freedom to music. The orchestra without a doubt did the symphony justice and conjured a Lutoslawski-esque cosmic atmosphere, a perfect ending to the night.

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