Celebrating the centenary of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s birth, the Philharmonia Orchestra have embarked on Woven Words, a series also involving the Royal College of Music. The title, an English translation of Lutosławski’s Paroles tissées (1965), invites audiences to consider a multitude of questions concerning music and meaning. As further provocation, a remark of Claude Debussy’s – “Music begins where words end” – sits underneath this heading: a statement contemplated and challenged by Lutosławski in his writings. The Four Quartets concert this Monday saw students from the RCM take on the composer’s String Quartet (1964), and three other 20th-century works from a war-torn Eastern Europe with thrilling results.

Witold Lutosławski, courtesy of W. Pniewski and L. Kowalski
Witold Lutosławski, courtesy of W. Pniewski and L. Kowalski

The programme was marked by two sensitive pairings of repertoire: Karol Szymanowski’s Quartet no. 1 in C major, Op. 37 (1917) and György Ligeti’s Quartet no. 1 (1953–54) for the first half, and Albert Roussel’s Quartet in D major, Op. 45 (1931–32) followed by Lutosławski’s String Quartet for the second. This was a collection of works that attempted to trace early influences on Lutosławski’s development, from the lyrical world of Szymanowski to the rupturing of materials proffered by Ligeti and the Oriental exoticism of Roussel. We were also treated to an array of interpretative decisions and playing styles that crystallized into fine performances for each of the works.

Szymanowski’s Quartet no. 1 in C major offers a curious window onto the year of 1917. It is hard to imagine that this music, gracefully laced with Cantilenas, was produced while the Ukraine estate of the Szymanowskis was being destroyed at the hands of the Bolsheviks (who tossed the family piano into the lake). “Can you imagine? I cannot compose now”, Szymanowski lamented in 1918. The Kallisto Quartet successfully drew out an atmosphere of electric nervousness in this seemingly melodious piece. The foreshadowing of Lutosławski’s “radical dismantling” promised by the programme booklet was perhaps not brought to the fore. The players were sometimes affected by illusions of classical security in Szymanowski’s writing. Yet they did succeed in capturing something of the precarious nature of the music’s breathtaking beauty.

The Walmsley Quartet delivered an engaging rendition of Ligeti’s Quartet no. 1. Described by the composer as one of his “prehistoric” works, the composition dates from Ligeti’s years in Hungary before the violent suppression of the uprising in 1956. Consisting of seventeen contrasting sections, the composition is a thicket of canonical interplay, savage dialogue and ghostly whispers. These were deftly managed by the players, who produced a portrait of a musician striving to create interrogative art in a communist community. Dissonances were flung out in reckless constellations, while beleaguered soliloquies searched in vain for purchase. This ensemble have a flair for coordination; both accurate and inventive. Their care over the pacing of events certainly allowed this work to communicate its most expressive properties and to shock with its fractured representation of classical forms.

The lesser-known Quartet in D major by the French composer Albert Roussel was possibly the most intriguing item on the programme. Introducing a new strand into Lutosławski’s influences, the composition is heavily indebted to the sensuous soundworlds of Debussy and Ravel, as well as the neoclassical styles emerging in the first half of the 20th century. Through his travels with the French navy, Roussel developed a taste for exotic music and Oriental mysticism. In the case of the Quartet in D major Roussel attempts to integrate these elements into a generic four-movement quartet structure. The Mira Quartet’s rendition of this piece was somewhat overburdened by the looming presence of classical structures, yet, when they were able to elucidate Roussel’s tropical palette the results were magical.

By far the most successful performance of the evening was that of Lutosławski’s String Quartet given by the accomplished Park Quartet. Opening the blanched pages of outsize parts upon their stands like a collection of wings, the players set about conquering this highly original 20th-century masterpiece. Like Jeux Venitiens (1960) and Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), it pursues the notion of “controlled aleatorism”: an approach where elements of chance are employed to enrich the expressive content of the music, yet the composer maintains their grip on the overall design. The Introductory Movement was brilliantly presented by the performers, with the first violinist’s strange bird-like chirps dissolving into groaning appoggiatura figures scattered across the group. Equally, the fierce bow-sawing of the Main Movement giving way to pixilated pizzicati was executed with thrilling precision. The ensemble’s excellent perception of tuning enabled them to voice distinctive variations of pitch in the eerie passages of harmonic demise, and their masterful control of dynamic range paved the way for a chilling collapse of interaction.

Emerging from the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, Lutosławski’s String Quartet still stands as a striking artistic offering. While the music could be seen simply to mirror catastrophic historical events, it is more strikingly experienced as a moving expression of hope. For Lutosławski music concerned “the invisible world, the world of our desires, our dreams, the ideal world, and therefore the world we long for”. The Four Quartets concert was an effective celebration of such a belief, and an inspired addition to the Philharmonia’s series.