Spring Symphonies 35/60: Lutosławski: Symphony No 2
It would be wrong to claim that in any sense I understand this symphony. Far from it - much of it is baffling in its overt state. But the more I listen the more I question it and it answers me. It is a prime example of modern music written to ask questions of both understanding and form but the language Witold Lutosławski uses is beyond our reach on first, second or in my case sixth hearing. But fewer questions remain each time and the relaxation in the piece eventually gets to something a little below high anxiety.
So given all this uncertainly how can it be a symphony and why is it in my list?
The “how “ is perhaps easier to answer: it is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The parts are granular, isolated and in many ways lacking in contiguity of any sort. I would suggest that there’s a sort of sound world being created by instrumental groups especially in pairings, repeated timbre landscapes, composition motifs and a particular sort of chaos. Why is in on my list is also quite straightforward at one level: this is hard work and requires concentration and with that, it rewards - so I an happy to advocate that. Also symphonies don’t always have to be “accessible” or “straightforward” this is, and will remain, hard but it’s grown on me and it might well grow on you.
Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw in January 1913 and died there in February 1994 - he enjoyed - if that’s the right word, great success in his native Poland throughout the ravages of the 20th Century, in particular economic upheaval for the landed aristocracy (of which his family was part) after WWI, the grim destruction of WWII and the relentless oppression of the post war Communist years - but he was honoured and lauded in his career as a composer and noted Polish cultural representative. He lived to see the establishment of the Third Polish Republic in 1989 - but by then was internationally renowned and well-known.
This is one of four symphonies he wrote - none enjoys frequent concert outings but in a mark of his standing, the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle played all four in Lutosławski’s centenary year. There is a good choice of recordings of the work: for my purposes Antoni Wit’s recording with the Polish National Radio Orchestra was useful not least because of Wit’s long association with the music of his fellow countryman. And because of all the versions I have sampled Wit is the closest to orchestrated chaos I think the composer most wanted and there’s much in that which captures the unique character of this work.
There’s no obvious plot to the events in this work except and that movement titles imply the first movement doesn’t get off the ground and the second does (only the crash afterwards). Lutosławski was interested in a number of ideas and one was the notion of action or akcja, second there his preoccupation with the overall texture of the piece. Listen to Wit. But also listen to Rattle with the BPO (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J92pPYaWDzU for a clip which leads to the full concert - paid). The textures are very different: I wonder what the composer would have made of Rattle’s clarity. Lutosławski was also interested and includes in this symphony a compromised improvisation - used particularly in the scoring for woodwind groups - where rhythm is not specified within a fixed time period, but the notes are specified. I think this latter is an interesting development for those who sit with the score but less interesting until you are comparing two different performances of the piece.
Overall, I am moving to a place where Lutosławski might have found himself in Communist Poland - travelling slowly from anxiety to a state of mere continued discomfort. It’s a big ask of a beleaguered national but one that the composer asks through a brilliant parody of the inertia of bureaucracy, constrained creativity or even political filibustering. But one can get glimpses of the pain of the long-suffering citizen that the abrasive effect of this kind of turmoil can cause. The damping of determination is at it’s most extreme and horrific. But through the means he puts in place to realise this symphony, a new resilience comes through despite the crumbling end to this endeavour (musically at least).
Listen to what this composers says very assiduously - listen and listen again. Behind this baffling sound is a principle at play which many regimes will use to bamboozle the populous - the signal to noise ratio is very low. Beware !
Here Lutosławski conducts the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1968 in the first movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJPJHbkg5A0
The first movement "Hesistant"
Trumpets: at first a sense of warming up, then a feeling of repetitive adhesion - the music is "stuck"
Winds - piquant
Percussion - interruptive
Winds - keening, long breathed
Brass - buzzing
Winds - tentative
Winds with bells
Piano: bird call
Piano toy like
Rhetorical low woodwind
Rising figure crescendo - various
Flutes and harp circling eruptive piano/harsh drums
Slow motion music box - fades to Drums
Trumpets - mourning
Bassoon oboe randomness
High brass to low brass
And as a separate clip but from the same performance as above, the second movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FstHCnc7fRE
The second movement "Direct"
Subterranean rumblings like a pan of water boiling
Rise to a surface of feverish activity
Activity eventually collapses under its own weight with a scintillating passage for the whole orchestra
Sense of anticipation - alive with the idea of being on the brink of something
Drums and swirling woodwind seem to user in a new plateau of clam but eruptions get bigger
Strings swirl - flock of birds - firm ground despite the chaos
Piano against winds
Piano part becomes frenzied and angry
The music subsides downwards trombone slides
Music becomes thinner - narrow range of details
Strings plummet downward to a roaring cauldron of brass
Urgent string figures - suddenly some sense of forward momentum (only in last 6 minutes)
Structures seem to emerge
Reciprocating figures first on brass
Then on strings
Spasmodic string brass dialogue turns into a pandemonium
Raucous runs into belligerrent
Brass seeks to make a significant movement, with drums adding force, but music seems to be stuck under it's own inertia
Repeat chord (of sorts) and again terser, then weaker, then limp pizzicato
Single low (v low) strings circle round a series of notes which seem familiar