On Tuesday night at Cadogan Hall near Sloane Square the audience was treated to an expertly mastered programme of 20th century Polish music by Górecki, Lutoslawski and Szymanovski as well as the Overture, St. Francis of Assisi by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The latter had its London premiere that night.

Giovanni Guzzo © Eric Richmond
Giovanni Guzzo
© Eric Richmond

The evening commenced with Henryk Mikolaj Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style for orchestra, written in 1963. Górecki, who was born in Poland in 1933 and died last year, studied composition with Boleslav Szabelski, a former student of Karol Szymanovski and was a fore-runner of the 1950's Polish avant-garde. During his studies in Paris in the early 60s Górecki met his famous composer colleagues Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style show his interest in ancient Polish religious and folk traditions; the sound world uses modal archaic musical language that monks used in the 16th century. The first and third pieces are in the aeolian mode which has a natural and open sound and would consist only of white keys on the piano while the second piece is an actual folk dance. In this folk dance the orchestra indulges in a succulent velvet texture but the pure beauty of sound fails to evoke feelings of intense passion. In the third piece Górecki even quotes a fragment taken from an anonymous 16th century song. Here the luscious pedal note played by the double basses growls below the sighing higher strings which is intercepted by a brief chorale with pure and beautiful sound.

To hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a treat for any ear with its supple sumptuous waves pushing to and fro, outlined beautifully by the clear flute melodies, the warm clarinets, the trumpet fanfares precise as lightning and the shivering percussion and piano elements. The excellent unity and warmth of sound of the string section filled the hall. Conductor Christopher Austin, one of the UK's foremost experts on contemporary music, having enjoyed an education as a composer himself, showed the swelling waves in the music wonderfully with his supple swan-like hand and wrist movements as well as communicating brilliantly with the orchestra on a pleasant personal level.

After this display of rich orchestral colours the sparce opening of Lutosawski's cello concerto, in which the soloist plays heartbeats of a single gruff note alone for a long time before the orchestra joins in, gave a marked change to the concert's atmosphere. The Warsawian composer, conductor and violinist Witold Lutoslawski wrote his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in 1970 for the world well-loved Russian cello titan Mstislav Rostropovich. Having struggled with the Soviet system all his life Rostropovich embraced Lutoslawski's idea of the concerto being a conflict between an individual and the whole society. The young Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg tried to match the sense of the individual's struggle with the society but it seemed like a lonesome voice trying to escape from the orchestra's grandure. Having said that, Kullberg showed technically brilliant virtuosity and a knack for Lutoslawski's sound effects in the concerto's cello antics and displayed his mastery of a gorgeous warm and smoothly sonorous cello sound in his encore, from a solo cello suite by J.S. Bach.

Although Austin was self confident in his expert approach to the scores and in his musical collaboration with the orchestra and soloists, it seemed as if he demurely took a step back behind the music. However one might wish for a greater emotional involvement with the musical fire, a sense of "sweat, blood and tears".

The refreshing and turbulent opening of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Overture to an Opera which he never wrote made way to an exciting set of harmonic progressions, outlined by sharp Glockenspiel spikes. This composition was a particular pleasure to listen to. Its musical style is well rooted in early 20th century traditions as well bringing a very individual and fresh view on music to life. More than anything Christopher Austin was in his best element here, guiding the orchestra through the musical landscape.

Although the orchestra's unique sound world and the conductor's great leading capabilities were a joy to watch and listen to, the impression of a sense that something greater, more passionate and more fulfilled was missing prevailed until the Venezuelan-born, half Italian violin virtuoso Giovanni Guzzo strode out on stage and filled the hall with his commanding presence and plucked a couple of heart strings in the heightened romantic Szymanovski Violin Concerto no. 2 at the end of the concert. Szymanovski's very evocative sound structures build up entire epic dream landscapes. At his best when soaring way up high over the warm and rich strings Guzzo impressed also in the diabolically demanding cadenza of violin fireworks and flying chords as if he and his violin had suddenly turned into light silver butterfly wings. The passionate violinist never wavered in his musical dedication to living out the music for his audience.