Witold Lutoslawski is in town this week, for two Los Angeles Philharmonic
programs of his music. The Kronos Quartet’s program at UCLA on Saturday
includes music by Alfred Schnittke. George Enesco’s opera “Oedipus” has been
released on Angel-EMI, the first-ever recording of a kind of masterpiece by
Romania’s best-known composer. Comprehensive, six-CD surveys of Lutoslawski’s
music, and that of his countryman composer Karol Szymanowski, were released
last year on Poland’s Muza label. Krysztof Penderecki’s dark, intense “St.
Luke Passion” has been newly recorded, under the composer’s direction, on
Britain’s Argo label.
These matters are related. They suggest an emergence, a growing awareness, or
both, of a repertory of major significance, remote both geographically and
artistically from the musical mainstream. Sure, the mainstream Russian and
Soviet symphonic repertory has been with us for over a century. We’ve known
something, if not very much, about Polish music from a few salon tidbits by
Szymanowski and Paderewski’s Minuet in G. And Enesco’s first “Romanian
Rhapsody” has long been a pop-concert staple.
But the new music from Eastern Europe is none of the above. Szymanowski died in
1937, and it’s stretching a point, perhaps, to include him in a report of new
music. But these six CD’s of his works — big pieces, including three
extroverted, handsomely crafted symphonies, and stunning choral music — along
with the opera “King Roger” which Long Beach produced three seasons ago (and
which is also available in a recording on the Olympia label), point to a major,
original talent whose reevaluation in the West is long overdue. What’s more,
much of Szymanowski’s expressive style bears little resemblance to what anyone
else was doing in his time. Violently colorful in the Scriabin manner, it has
at the same time the jagged quirkiness of some of Stravinsky: a strange
mixture, but one which seems to work.
What you hear in Szymanowski’s music, most of all, is a fierce energy that
seems to stem from his obsession with breaking away from everyone else’s music.
And the generation of Polish composers that emerged after World War II —
Lutoslawski, and the younger Penderecki — picked up on that obsession.
Similar in intent, but not in style, to the revolutionaries of Western Europe –
– Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen above all — the new Poles set about
inventing their own musical language.
Life was made easy, for a time anyhow, by the cultural “thaw” that began in
1956 and lasted more or less until a new wave of artistic repression took hold
a dozen years later. While beleaguered Soviet musical renegades like Schnittke
were composing their progressive, abrasive scores in dark corners and
underground enclaves, Poland’s composers moved freely around the world, and
absorbed a broad spectrum of world outlooks.
Lutoslawski first came to the U.S. in 1962, invited by Aaron Copland to teach
at Tanglewood. We met that summer, and his warm, enthusiastic portrait of
Poland remains memorable: a land where the government sponsored no-strings
festivals of new art every autumn, where commissions for new works seemed to
grow on trees, where young composers could experiment in electronic labs and
study the works of Boulez and John Cage.
The cultural paradise Lutoslawski outlined in 1962 crumbled a few years later,
but the greatest of Poland’s composers did survive — at home in Lutoslawski’s
case, in exile for Penderecki.
Lutoslawski talked at our meeting, more than a quarter-century ago, about his
own musical tendency toward the kind of chance techniques explored by John
Cage, devices which allow the performer a certain range of choice within the
broad outlines of the piece. He had, at the time, made his first venture into
chance music with his “Venetian Games” for chamber orchestra, and that
captivating work (included in the Muza record series) retains its
But the Third Symphony, which is on Lutoslawski’s Philharmonic program this
coming Thursday night (repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) is
stronger yet. Even though long passages threaded throughout the half-hour work
challenge the orchestra’s powers of improvisation, the symphony as a whole
seems to derive its terrific energy and sense of cohesion from just those
creative challenges. It stands as one of the great symphonic creations of our
time, far removed from anyone else’s conception of how symphonies are supposed
to be built, fresh and explosive on its own.
(You may also remember that this work was on the Philharmonic program the day
Los Angeles first discovered the fresh-faced youth named Esa-Pekka Salonen. His
recording, for reasons beyond rational explanation, comes bundled at the end of
a two-disc set of Messiaen’s preternaturally vulgar “Turangalila” Symphony:
like having to buy a whole overcooked meatloaf blueplate special in order to
get the salad.)
Anyhow, Lutoslawski is with us this week, first with the Philharmonic New Music
Group tomorrow at the Japan-America Theater, in a program that also includes,
besides three chamber-orchestra Lutoslawski scores, a short work of
Szymanowski and another by a composer as yet unknown here, Pawel Szymanski. Do
not confuse the two; they are Poles apart.
As Szymanowski stood apart in his own time, so did Enesco in his: violinist
beyond compare, mentor (to, among others, the young Yehudi Menuhin),
extraordinary conductor and, least known of all, a remarkable composer.
“Oedipus,” comes to records from a startlingly star-studded studio session at
Monte Carlo in June, 1989 (Jose Van Dam as Oedipus, Barbara Hendricks, Brigitte
Fassbaender, Gabriel Bacquier, with Lawrence Foster conducting). Like “Roger”
for Szymanowski, “Oedipus” was to be for Enesco his crowning achievement. He
struggled with it over most of a lifetime, until it finally achieved a premiere
in 1936 — only to disappear almost immediately.
It deserves better. It is a work of dazzling ambition, even if only fitfully
realized. The evocation of antiquity through a kind of contrived paganism is
extravagant, absurd at one moment, truly grandiose at another. Now and then the
fraudulent exoticism of Carl Orff comes to mind, but this is better, more
honest stuff. There is a genuine lyricism here; Enesco’s own adoration for the
sweet fragrance of Gabriel Faure’s songs is easy to detect.
The music is dense and difficult; it would be hard to imagine a major opera
house taking it on, yet a major house would be needed for the opera’s extreme
difficulty. At least there is this recording, and it casts a magnificent