PROM 55: Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Surely a Proms Highlight?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 55. Lutoslawski, Shostakovich, Panufnik: Alexander Melnikov (piano), Warsaw Phiharmonic Orchestra / Antoni Wit (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.8.2013 (GD)

Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major
Panufnik Tragic Overture, Lullaby
Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 in B minor

Antoni Wit will be known by most people through his recordings of Szymanowski, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, and others on the ever enterprising label Naxos. I can’t remember ever hearing Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic in London, but with the superb quality of the Naxos performances my expectations were high, and I was not disappointed. This surely was  one of the highlights of this year’s Proms, although I noticed plenty of empty seats?   Lutowslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra was premiered in Warsaw in 1954 with the Warsaw Philharmonic and the great Witold Rowicki who was a formative influence for the young Wit. And to whom the score is dedicated. Since then Wit has conducted the work many times and recorded it on various labels.

Predictably tonight’s performance was masterful. As with the other works on tonight’s programme – especially the Shostakovich symphony – Wit achieved a complete and coherent line corresponding to each part  and also to the overall contour of the composition. I mention this as recent performances I have heard from less experienced conductors do not always achieve this. The opening ostinato-like figure with a pounding timpani figure sounded inevitable and powerful, but also suitably restrained. The following F sharps emerging from growling brass were wonderfully dark, almost menacing.I later played a recording by a top US orchestra and an eminent maestro on which the brass were equally effective, but had a brighter more set-piece virtuoso quality, and this difference in tone, texture, compared with Western orchestras, was distinctive.

The strings are very diverse in terms of melody and rhythm, but have a distinctive grainy quality, especially in the lower registers. The woodwind section reminded me more of an orchestra like the Czech Philharmonic since they had a more open, songful tone, less homogenous than that of their Western counterparts. This work has often been compared with Bartok’s great Concerto for Orchestra, and Lutoslawki was aware of this as heard in the second movement ‘Cappricio  notturno e Arioso Vivace’, capturing something of Bartok’s famous night music. Wit brought out every nuance here from the mysterious calm but furtive activity, to the climax with dominant  trumpet. The finale’s extended Passacaglia, with its fifteen variations unfolded with a compelling sense of inevitability under Wit, each variation blending into the next in all their diversity and complimentarity in a way I have not previously heard. The powerful Toccata section leads to a sombre chorale theme in which the ghost of Bartok is heard again. The chorale theme leads to the rhythmically sharp coda which radiated an urgent sense of finality tonight.

Shostakovich’s Second  Piano Concerto is one of the composer’s most delightful light works. But despite this ‘light’ quality something more unsettling emerges in the first movement with its slightly offset rhythms and harmonies. This uneasiness extends to the first movement cadenza but is resolved in the recapitulating coda. The reflective Andante with its strains of Chopin and Rachmaninov leads into the brilliant finale which takes the form of a dance-like rondo. Melnikov has made a recent highly acclaimed recording of the concerto and tonight he totally empathised with the composer’s sense of irony and humour.  Wit and the orchestra responded superbly with a real sense of rapport and dialogue with Melnikov. The repeated woodwing flourishes towards the coda were particularly impressive in their dance-like textures and projection.

As an encore Melnikov gave us a brilliant rendition of Feux d’artifice, the last prelude from Book Two of Debussy’s Preludes. It didn’t quite have the pianistic finesse of a Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but it certainly pleased the Prom audience.

Panufnik’s Tragic Overture of 1945 was, as tonight’s programme note writer reminded us;  ‘a brutal, overtly violent piece which was a direct non-verbal protest against the Nazi regime as could be imagined’. I am not sure what philosopher and music theorist Theodor Adorno, who wrote; ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ would have thought of this musical response to Nazi brutality? Certainly its persistent rhythmic projection based on a four-note figure has a powerful effect; it is not easy to listen to, but it is not meant to be easily consumed. Poland With Russia suffered some of the worse Nazi atrocities. I used to have an old Horenstein recording of this work with the LPO, or LSO, I can’t remember which? Horenstein certainly identified with the grim aspects of the work, but I felt Wit was more sensitive to the brief, but poignantly lyrical passages, also allowing more rhythmic flexibility than Horenstein.

The Lullaby was new to me. As the programme note writer contends, this short composition for string orchestra with two harps was quite amazing in terms of experimentation for the time at which it was written 1947. It divides the 29 individual parts ‘throughout’ and deploys diverse tuning registers, bitonality, and diatonic clusters. As the programme note writer tells us, this piece was written ‘a full decade’ before similar works from Xenakis and Ligeti. The texture, tone of Lullaby, with its filigrees of string cascades and runs is quite haunting. For me it was reminiscent of one of Arvo Pärt’s works for strings, particularly Frates, with its aura of meditation and reflection. It received a splendid rendition tonight with Wit’s perfect pacing and articulation.

Wit was in his element in Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony, particularly in the spacious and brooding opening Largo. I don’t think I have ever heard a rendition of this movement which so successfully blended the long melodic lines with their increasingly complex contrasts and modulations, the basis of the essential forward pace of the movement. Because nothing was exaggerated – nothing drawn out – the ghostly effects of a tam-tam stroke and the fluttering flute arabesques over agitated lower strings had an utterly haunting effect. The second movement was remarkable in the way in which Wit fully projected the various dynamic levels, only letting out full throttle at the climatic passage with full percussion and angry brass ending in a dazzling solo for timpani. All this had a distinctly burlesque, even carnivalesque tone. But in contrast to this Wit conveyed the lyrical, playful aspects of the music and the delicate coda with pp timpani taps was as subtle  as I have heard it.

Similarly the final movement, a rondo in B major, was a delight from beginning to end. As in the more famous Fifth Symphony some commentators have detected a not of sham hollowness here. The bold rhythms,  prancing melodies and ‘sliding harmonies’ all sounded a tad contrived, but perhaps it is better to see/hear the movement more as incredibly engaging, high spirited, and occasionally vulgar (in the best sense of the word) music. Wit, obviously believing in it totally, urged a slight but powerful crescendo towards the finale which was delivered with all the bizarre, carnivalesque power the score asks for.

We were treated to two encores, first a wonderfully shaped performance of the third movement from Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, then, the beguiling ‘Polka’ from Lutoslawski’s Little Suite. 

Geoff Diggines