Outstanding Lutosławski from Mørk, Salonen and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Lutosławski: Truls Mørk (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.3. 2013. (CD)

DebussyLa Mer: trois esquisses symphoniques (1905)
Lutosławski:  Cello Concerto (1968-1970)
Lutosławski:  Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54)

This concert, part of the ‘Woven words’ Lutosławski centenary series, opened with a short film paying tribute to the composer, which included a particularly apt and moving contribution from Esa-Pekka Salonen. This was accompanied by an outstanding set of programme notes, containing a number of fascinating and detailed articles on the composer and his music, along with links to extensive on-line material. Together these created a real sense of additional effort by all concerned in order to pay proper tribute to a composer who perhaps has not reached the level of wider public recognition that he merits.

The programme opened with a performance of La Mer that charted an almost miraculous balance between clarity and atmosphere, with every detail of the orchestration made effective and yet with the overall impressionistic feeling maintained throughout. At the same time Salonen ensured that the performance had drive, excitement and a real sense of direction. The closing ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ brought together periods of relaxation and calm with sections of crushing force. The playing was outstanding throughout, with sparkling contributions from all the wind soloists.

Truls Mørk’s rendition of the solo part in the Lutosławski Cello Concerto also demonstrated balance and synthesis of potentially conflicting aspects of the work: delicacy and drive, reticence and emotion, virtuosity and simplicity; and – in a work that contains extensive ‘ad libitum’ sections – fine control and individual freedom.

The simple opening repeated ‘D’ played by the soloist grabbed the attention from the start with each note played with care and concentration. Throughout, Mørk handled the diverse demands of this piece with assurance. The contrasting moods of each section were fully caught – from the reflective opening, through the stormy exchanges with the orchestra and on to the positive final notes. The orchestral contributions were very strong: the exchanges between the cello and orchestra, first the brass and then the whole orchestra, were particularly well handled. The contrasting tone quality – refined and modest from the cello, bold and coarse from the trumpets and trombones – was highly effective and brought home the argumentative nature of these exchanges. This was an enthralling performance by Mørk of a multifaceted and gripping work.

The Concerto for Orchestra is also a work of strong contrasts, with the delicacy and refinement of the orchestration juxtaposed with more brooding and threatening elements, such as the repeated aggressive figure of the ‘Intrada’ and the sombre opening of the finale. Perhaps including the Debussy in the same programme served to emphasise the importance of tone quality and orchestration in this work and Salonen and the orchestra ensured that every feature of the orchestration was heard with clarity.

The opening movement was dramatic and urgent with a sense of inevitability about the progress of the opening figure; this was music being swept along under its own momentum rather than forced against its will. The second movement came across as delicate, light and fragile, scuttling along with determination before being interrupted by the solo trumpet. The opening of the first Passacaglia section of the finale was appropriately sombre and measured. As the movement progressed it gathered energy whilst remaining under Salonen’s firm control. Perhaps the last element of excitement was missing in the final bars, but this was music propelled by logic rather than emotional abandon.

The playing of the Philharmonia was very fine throughout: strings were forceful yet refined but without being inappropriately glossy, the wind soloists were bright and characterful and the brass blended well with a more tasteful tone quality than had been adopted in the cello concerto. One highlight was the fortissimo tutti sections of the finale which were overwhelming without being strident and with fine clarity and balance maintained throughout.

Salonen held the score of the Concerto for Orchestra aloft in response to the warm audience reception. It would be hard to imagine more effective advocacy for these works, or for the composer, than that provided by Salonen, Mørk and the Philharmonia on this occasion.


Carl Dowthwaite