Friday, January 25, 2019

Compare and Contrast 37

San Francisco Symphony has a program this week of R. Strauss's Don Juan, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, and Lutoslawki's Cello Concerto, in its SFS premiere. There was some difference of opinion.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron. "On Thursday, Jan. 24, Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto from 1970 — a work of extraordinary wit, invention, theatrical vibrancy and expressive weight — finally took its place in the San Francisco Symphony’s repertoire. It got a magnificent performance featuring Johannes Moser as soloist and led with panache by the orchestra’s resident conductor, Christian Reif."
  • Kalimac. "This work is one of that peculiar subset of high modernist effluvia that seems to have been composed in dead serious earnestness but which comes across as goofy, even funny, because it's so pretentiously ridiculous. It begins with the cellist playing a D over again about twenty times, switching to some noodling, then going back to the D until interrupted by a loud blat from a trumpet. First laugh from the audience. More followed as the orchestra kept trying futilely to influence the soloist's behavior and they otherwise interacted like ships sailing past each other in the night. Mostly the orchestra played very loudly, while the cellist, interjecting between its outbursts, gave off a soapy, unresonant, and frankly unpleasant tone. For an encore, he played a Bach movement in the same grotty style, feh.

    "Insert here my unusual uncomprehending rant about why do they program such ugly, nasty stuff on the same program with such great music as the Prokofiev and Strauss. Surely it wasn't because they thought the Lutoslawski was funny."


JSC said...

Out of my own curiosity after reading this I went to YouTube to listen to the Lutoslawski and was interested in it until the trumpets. Then it just sounded like a bunch of car horns in rush hour traffic and I had to close the tab. *shudder*

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I know the 2nd reaction is meant to be caustically dismissive, but actually it makes me really regret missing this piece.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm with Patrick on this one - very likely I would have liked it a lot. :)

Robert Gordon said...

Oh, it's a terrific piece, by a consistently terrific composer. I first heard it in the '80s, played by Lynn Harrell with the composer leading the LA Phil in an all-Lutosławski program (which also included his 3rd Symphony, another great piece -- it won the first Gravemeyer prize). What amazes me about Lutosławski's works, definitely including the cello concerto, is the combination of high-modernist dissonant harmony with forms that are so clear that the listener can follow them on first hearing.

The first movement of the cello concerto, which seems to have shocked the commenters here, is a kind of cousin to the slow movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto: the timid solo keeps getting beaten down by the nasty brass, but finds a way to assert itself anyway. Maybe the commenters are bothered by Lutosławski's famous aleatoric passages, where the coordination between the instruments is unspecified and so comes out differently in every performance -- but the composer knows what he's doing, and the effect is always pretty much the same.

There are several performances on youtube -- I just listened to a good one from the BBC Proms led by Thomas Adès.

Lutosławski made five visits to LA in the '80s and '90s, at two-year intervals, each time conducting the LA Phil or, in one case, a student orchestra at UCLA. I grew to really look forward to these, and over the 10 years we got to hear all his later orchestral pieces. His last work was the 4th Symphony, which he dedicated to the LA Phil and which had its premier in 1992 during his last visit. There would have been more, but he died in 1994, with beginning sketches for a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter on his desk (probably one of those great lost pieces).

I recently learned something interesting: Lutosławski wrote a small body of pop songs for voice and piano, 33 of them, under the pseudonym Derwid. There are some samples on youtube, mostly from Polish groups treating them as standards for jazz elaboration, but a couple of women in LA have a project to record them all as written. Here's a sample:

Here's their project page:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Rob!!

Clickable versions of those links:

Sample recording of Lutoslawski pop songs, on YouTube

Project page for Lutoslawski Derwid songs

Henry Holland said...

Car horns? Been there, done that, in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.

I like the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto, the LA Phil did it about 6 or 7 years ago. I like his music a lot, the 3rd Symphony is a masterpiece IMHO.