It was a refreshing start to a bracing concert to hear the music of Andrzej Panufnik, so rarely programmed. His Heroic Overture is a six-minute work of enormous dynamism, announcing in the early 1950s a new voice in Polish music and a postwar sense of struggle overcome by hope. However, this was all soon shattered when the composer was condemned by the Communist authorities as being formalist and corrupted by Western musical thought. Soon after he found refuge in the UK where he lived for the rest of his life, establishing an appreciative audience. But performances of his work had dwindled since his death in 1991. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Łukasz Borowicz certainly presented the work in all its glory, demonstrating the miraculous homogeneity of the band at this point in time.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Bastian Achard
Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Bastian Achard

The stellar performance of the evening was however Anne-Sophie Mutter performing the Violin Concerto no. 2 “Metamorphosen” by Krzysztof Penderecki. Dedicated to and premiered by her in 1995, Mutter has continued to champion the work. And it is a very impressive and substantial piece which grows with each hearing. Written in Penderecki’s later post-romantic style, it met with critical resistance, as did all his work of this period, because there was a sense that the composer had retreated from his avant-garde manner into something which he hadn’t fully assimilated. This may be true of some works, but in hindsight this concerto succeeds in rising above these doubts by the sheer scope of its musical material and ingenuity of its structure. There are also more echoes of the younger Penderecki in some of the techniques used, for example, tone clusters and certain colouristic effects.

Mutter knows this score inside out. Every note was under her fingers. It was clear that this was the most authoritative performance of the work that you are ever likely to hear, written as it is very much with Mutter’s style and technique in mind. She was supported with fluidity and virtuosity across the 40-minute one-movement span by Borowicz and the LPO, who were responsive at every twist and turn of the complex score. The overall shape of the piece was well presented with the final climax given due weight and the long wind down well maintained and ultimately moving. This well received performance was given added poignance by the attendance of the 85-year-old composer who came to the stage to receive the appreciative applause of both audience and musicians.

The concert rounded off with an outstanding performance of the Symphony no. 5 in B flat major by Prokofiev. Now a concert staple, justly so as it is one of the composer's more rounded and inspired achievements. Composed during the dark days of the war in the mid-1940s and under the watchful eye of the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev aimed to achieve a balance between suffering and defiance. Like Shostakovich, he stubbornly refused to abandon his own musical language but found a way of sometimes sweetening the pill. It is interesting to note that perhaps the two most popular symphonies of the mid-20th century, the Fifth symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, were both the product of political oppression.

Borowicz took a lithe approach to the score. A fast pace in the first movement made its cumulative qualities unfold in almost a Sibelian way. The Scherzo was not all fun and games and had a threatening edge to it throughout, with superb pointed playing especially from the brass. The heavy laden slow movement moved though its wide variety of moods and themes with a naturalness and subtlety, leading again to a big-hearted climax. The finale, with its mix of homespun folksiness and spikey aggression was held in perfect balance, until the final release which asserts darker elements. Here the sense of unease remained in the final clattering chords, but the overall impression was, as it should be, life enhancing.

*****