Concerto for Orchestra (dir. Witold Lutosławski)
Lutosławski received a serious invitation
from Witold Rowicki in 1950. Rowicki, at that time chief conductor of the
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, asked him to compose a large virtuoso work for
the orchestra, based on folk themes. Rowicki’s wish came true four years later
– the time it took Lutosławski to compose the Concerto for Orchestra,
eventually completed in August 1954.
The beginning of the work leaves us in no doubt that it is a composition written on a grand scale. Against the background of a bass beat we hear a distinctive melody, then its successive, increasingly complex versions are spread in the strings and woodwinds. Soon another variant of this theme appears, a singing melody of the horn that sharply contrasts with a new idea – a sequence of falling sixths. The first theme returns in the lyrical ending of the Intrada, while the two others intertwine throughout the movement. Its climax is marked by the second theme presented by the full orchestra.
The second movement opens and ends with brilliant playing by strings and woodwinds, seconded by snare drum, celesta and harp. These fragments are referred to as Capriccio notturno. The middle of the second movement is dominated by a trumpet melody (Arioso) against a falling woodwind passage and “accents” played by percussion and piano.
The first section of the finale is an elaborate Passacaglia. Successive presentations of its theme begin and end at different moments from the variations (overlapping each other like links of a chain[K1] ). An energetic entry by the strings opens the Toccata, which then gives way to the Chorale, the solemn theme of which is intoned by oboes and clarinets. The Toccata returns, only to give way to the Chorale once again. Its last, triumphal passage is the climax of the work. The whole ends with a concise, impressive coda.
The score is one of the most precise and fully realized in Polish music; it also occupies an important place in the entire symphonic repertoire. What makes the Concerto for Orchestra unique is its combination of Mazovian folklore (from Poland’s eastern lake district) with Baroque polyphony and compositional techniques of 20th-century classics (mainly Bartók). The composer was critical of the Concerto – he saw it as a testimony to the times, when “he wrote as he could and not as he would like”. That period ended unexpectedly quickly, as can be seen in works composed shortly after the Concerto: Five Songs to Words by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna and Funeral Music.