Anne-Sophie Mutter Plays Penderecki’s Second Concerto with Stunning Authority and Insight

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Panufnik, Penderecki, Prokofiev: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Łukasz Borowicz (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.5.2018. (CS)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (c) Monika Höfler
Anne-Sophie Mutter (c) Monika Höfler

PanufnikHeroic Overture
Penderecki – Violin Concerto No.2 (Metamorphosen)
Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major Op.100

What an absolute pleasure it must have been for Krzysztof Penderecki, celebrating his 85th year, to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter’s exceptionally authoritative and astonishingly discerning performance, alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Łukasz Borowicz, of the Second Violin Concerto (Metamorphosen) which the composer wrote for Mutter in 1995.

The Second Concerto is uncompromising in its form and language, a single movement spanning 38 minutes in which a four-note motif unfolds and transforms.  Mutter and Borowicz ensured that the diversity of textures, techniques, moods and mannerisms drew our ears into constantly evolving ideas and arguments: angry protest was soothed by meditative melancholy before elegy gave way to the biting satire of the scherzo-like episode.

The variations are as much symphonic as soloistic, and Mutter’s ability to engage with equal conviction in hostile disputes, assertive exchanges and consoling communion with the LPO was a major factor in the performance’s cohesiveness and convincingness.  There was much characteristically commanding bravura – startling impact and focus of tone, muscularity of phrasing – but more than that, the solo sound was somehow truly ‘energised’ by Mutter’s bow technique and finger strength.  The almost unbelievably demanding flamboyance and fury of the cadenza seem, oddly, to look back to the nineteenth century virtuoso, but to the array of brilliance is added modernistic intensity.  Even at the quietest moments Mutter’s tone was as sure as steel.  The contemplative meno mosso section was sensuous of tone and haunting of mood, its evocativeness lingering.

Sobriety and passion elided seamlessly as Mutter and Borowicz pushed through to new Vivace tempo, and their mastery of the evolving structure created a cogent sense of narrative, even if ‘meaning’ remained elusive.  The embroidered poppies upon the hem of Mutter’s gown evoked the music’s spirit of lament but the bright crimson against stark black also seemed to betoken the score’s boldness.

Despite the sometimes abrasive orchestral dissonances, the instrumentation is lucid and Borowicz teased out the subtleties in understated but telling fashion.  Low, dark cellos and basses had an eerie hollowness; the viola section showed their musical mettle in a strongly defined pronouncement of the contrapuntal theme.  At the close the ominous weight of the double basses’ pedal was tempered by the propulsion of the cello pizzicato and given further vitality by Mutter’s final furious fantasia-like excursions.  The rhetorical confidence and sureness of Mutter’s performance was remarkable: steeliness was complemented by both stylishness and sensitivity.  Above all, there was both musical and intellectual ‘clarity’.

Penderecki himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mutter’s premiere recording for Deutsche Grammophon.  Borowicz was surely no less authoritative on this occasion.  I had not seen previously seen the Polish conductor perform but I was impressed – by the unfussy attentiveness to score and soloist in Penderecki’s Concerto and by the lithe freedom of his interpretation and rendering of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (1944).

Prokofiev declared that in this symphony he, ‘wanted to sing the praises of the free and happy man — his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul.  I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself’.  Undoubtedly, the composer’s personal and professional happiness was at a peak at this time, but there was public joy too: a Russian victory in WW2 seemed certain – and, indeed, the symphony’s premiere coincided with an announcement that the Russian army had just won a definitive victory on the River Vistula.  Here, there was a fluency and optimism in the Andante – the sound glossy, the tuttis vibrant, the pulse buoyant – but the joyful ease was jarred by a judicious ‘edginess’, when spiky utterances reminded us that shadows that tug at the sunshine.  The strings’ closing unison, for example, was tinged forebodingly by the tuba’s grainy resonance.  Borowicz deftly and efficiently wove the colours and textures into a tight-knit tapestry.

The Allegro marcato flew with breathless fleetness – what fine musicians the players of the LPO truly are – as Borowicz’s tidy articulation and sustained mezzo piano dynamic allowed us to hear every fizzing, whirling, stuttering detail.  When the players were settled securely on the rails, the conductor’s lightly circling motion served as a simple nudge to the racing swirl.  In contrast, the trio section had a more statuesque dignity, though the rhythms remained nimble and the accelerando at the close was compellingly executed.

The tempo of the Adagio may have seemed closer to the easy stroll of an Andante, but there was no lack of emotional depth.  Rather, the firm impetus and line allowed the counterpoint between the violins, flute and cellos to speak confidently, and the challenging angular contours were sweetly assailed by the high violins.  After a gentle introduction, the Allegro giocoso released a wealth of rich melody and motifs with much to admire from the violas, basses, clarinets, horns and trombones.  Borowicz conjured a generous, jovial sweep and took us jubilantly to the end of our journey.  As my guest for the evening remarked after the high-spirited close, ‘No wonder the Soviets loved it!’

Exuberant heroism marked the start of the concert too.  We don’t hear enough of the music of Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91) ­– lauded and esteemed by his fellow countrymen, excoriated by two different political regimes in Poland, and be-knighted in the England to which he emigrated in 1954, no longer able to tolerate oppressive intrusions by the authorities into artistic matters – but Borowicz made a convincing case for the somewhat swashbuckling Heroic Overture, in which stirring consonance and an uncompromising abrasiveness sit side-by-side.  Indeed, Borowicz has been a persuasive advocate for Panufnik’s music, in the past contributing recordings with the Polish Radio Orchestra to CPO’s series of the composer’s complete orchestral works.

The Heroic Overture is a rousing exhortation to ‘resist’.  Conceived as a defiance of Hitler, early sketches were abandoned with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, but Panufnik returned to the work in 1952 (making further revisions in 1969), in protest at Soviet intervention and intimidation in his homeland.  Borowicz and the LPO fired an ear-splitting bullet of a fanfare at the start and romped with panache through the blazing warmth of the ‘epic’ horn themes, the lower strings’ rebellious march, the threatening percussive thumps and whirling high woodwind.  The bright colours were tempered at times by brusque timbres and aggressive dissonances, and punchy brass and precision-perfect strings fought a vigorous tussle, but the ending was brazenly celebratory.

Claire Seymour

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