James Gaffigan advised the audience about to hear him conduct Witold Lutosławki’s Piano Concerto to back off like you would from an Impressionist painting, in order to get an impression of the whole. When you do so, it’s a very romantic work. Otherwise, the score resembles ‘a science experiment’ because parts of it are notated without bars and cannot be conducted. Lutosławski himself, in his program note to the original performance in 1988, specified that “The only fundamental difference between ‘ad libitum’ sections (i.e. not conducted) and others written in the traditional manner (i.e. divided into beats of specified metre), is that in the former there is no common division of time for all performers. In other words, each performs his part as if playing alone and not coordinated with other performers. This gives quite specific results, ‘flexible’ textures of rich, capricious rhythms, impossible to achieve in any other way.”

Janina Fialkowska © Peter Schaaf
Janina Fialkowska
© Peter Schaaf

Of course the player who most “performs his part as if playing alone” is the soloist, in this case Janina Fialkowska, a dedicated Chopin specialist who has seldom strayed beyond the pale of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, except in homage to Polish composers like Paderewski and Szymanowski, and this night to Lutosławski. It was a delight to witness Fialkowska undertake the adventure of sprinkling clusters of opalescent piano pitches into the concerto’s capricious opening twitter and scurry of harp and flutes. Subsequent sections introduced by timpani darken the soundscape considerably. The orchestral voice rumbles, drones and blares around aleatoric solos by the excellent clarinet of Joaquin Valdepeñas, and a fiendishly rapid cadenza by Ms Fialkowska. It is most remarkable how the precise placement of tones that flow along Fialkowska’s finely modelled contours is grounded by her ability to rest in the daring silences she holds between phrases. This is as evident in the second movement’s ‘moto perpetuo’ chase by the piano as it is in the singing ‘largo’ theme of the recitative that opens the third movement.

Gaffigan conducted a reduced orchestra with the energy and enthusiasm one expects from him; he brought out bright detail in the sections and in various soloists while maintaining a frame around the aleatory elements. What I did not get was a sense of the concerto’s overall shape. Lutosławski gave his four movements clearly written endings but, in this performance, except for the excellent final climax, ornamented by a tambourine, the contours of the whole concerto somewhat faded into the mass of detail.

The TSO swelled to its full size for Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major. 1877 was a very good year for the composer. The success of his long-awaited first Symphony the previous year had lifted the weight of Beethoven off his chest, and allowed Brahms to breathe deeply. The second came quickly in the fine months of summer and early fall, and on track to a première by the Vienna Philharmonic. If a work really reflects the mood of the composer around its gestation, then the second’s reputation as ‘the sunniest’ of Brahms’ four symphonies is apt. Nonetheless, the work is marbled by the influence of his severely melancholic temperament. The rounded waves of the first movement’s flow that expand in ripples of relaxation, especially in the famous “Lullaby” theme, are interrupted by and alternated with surges of jagged lines, punctuated by timpani, darkened by querulous brass. The predominant lyricism of its structure has, as part of its richness, a stormy development into which the acidic trombones etch dissonant motifs. Under Gaffigan’s persuasive baton, the second movement Adagio and the brief third ‘pastorale’ are dreamy – the former melancholy, the latter cheery in a bucolic way. However pleasant and reassuring, these movements lacked a wakeful edge. All tensions and ambiguities were present but resolved by the distinctly wakeful energy Gaffigan and the Orchestra brought to the happy fourth movement, giving it an “All’s well that ends well” feeling.