Concerto for cello and orchestra (perf. A. Bauer)
confrontation between a solo instrument and an orchestra is a prospect that has
inspired many composers. Examples can be found in works as different as the
slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major op. 58 and
Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka. In both, the clash between soloist and
ensemble resembles an individual’s struggle against a collective. Lutosławski’s
cello concerto brings to mind similar associations – all the more so given that
the initiative behind its composition came from Mstislav Rostropovich,– not
only a great musician but also a hero of the opposition in the USSR.
The idea of a conflict may seem banal, but in Lutosławski’s case, like in Stravinsky’s and in Beethoven’s, there is nothing trivial in the resulting work. It is protected against banality by the artistry of the composer, who included in the concerto some of his most compelling sonic ideas – for example, euphonic harmonies and expressive melody in fragments that bring some “understanding” between soloist and orchestra, and in the finale.
The Concerto begins with a long monologue of the solo cello, brutally interrupted by three trumpets. It is followed by four consecutive episodes in which the soloist enters into dialogue with woodwind instruments, percussion, harp, piano and the string section. Each of these “attempts to reach an agreement” backs down in the face of fierce resistance by trumpets and other brass instruments. The strongest reaction is triggered by a cantilena played by the cello, which is joined by the strings – it is interrupted by the playing of the entire brass section: four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba.
This intervention opens the main part of the conflict. The soloist is engaged in vivid dialogue with various groups of instruments; successive stages of this clash are increasingly short and violent. At the climax the voice of the soloist fades away – the collective has triumphed. However, after a while, against dreamlike sounds of the orchestra, the cello melody begins to rise, reaching the highest register towards the end. When playing this fragment during a rehearsal before the premiere, Rostropovich allegedly broke down in tears. When Lutosławski, amazed, pointed out to him that the soloist at this point was finally winning against the orchestra, Rostropovich replied “Yes, but it’s a posthumous triumph – no longer of this world”.