Lutosławski: Chain 2 - Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra

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Ad libitum - A battuta - Ad libitum - A battuta – Ad libitum – A battuta

Throughout his career, Lutosławski wrote strikingly well for the violin, whether in chamber music, orchestrally, or in a solo role. He had studied the instrument from the ages of 13 to 19, progressing as far as the Bach solo sonatas and partitas, the Mozart concertos and the Franck sonata; among his earliest compositions were two sonatas for violin and piano (1927), now lost, which he recalled as ‘terribly naïve’ pieces bearing the imprint of Grieg and early Debussy. Yet in his mature years the solo violin (like chamber music in general) is strikingly rare in his output: the sole example is Recitativo e arioso, a three-minute occasional piece for violin and piano written as a birthday gift to the director of the Polish Music Publishers (PWM) in 1951. That changed in the last decade and a half of his life, when (enabled partly by his nimbler, more transparent ‘late’ technique) Lutosławski produced three significant violin works, including the Partita for violin and piano (1984), written for Pinchas Zukerman; Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra (1984-85), commissioned by Paul Sacher for Anne-Sophie Mutter; and Subito for violin and piano (1992), commissioned as a test piece for the Indianapolis Violin Competition, his last completed work save the very brief Fanfare for the Los Angeles Philharmonic later that same year. But Lutosławski’s late involvement with the violin went further. Anne-Sophie Mutter badly wanted a violin concerto from him, so to satisfy her at least temporarily he orchestrated the Partita in 1988 and composed a linking orchestral Interlude in 1989; by performing the sequence Partita – Interlude – Chain 2, a larger concertante work of about 38 minutes became available. But the real Lutosławski Violin Concerto was never completed: those were the sketches on his desk at his death in February 1994. They are detailed enough to permit a guess that the final design might have been in three movements, a Presto, a slow movement and a finale perhaps entitled Danza. The sketches are developed enough, too, to suggest that styles of violin writing familiar from the Partita, Chain 2 and Subito would have been prominent here too. (Two excerpts of the sketches are published in Charles Bodman Rae’s excellent The Music of Lutosławski, 3rd ed.)

Why Chain (in Polish, Łańcuch)? The term is Lutosławski’s own, designating a way of braiding two strands of music together like a rope, or like links in a chain. The strands are independent, both melodically and harmonically, and their phrases begin and end in different places, overlapping: the trick is in combining them into a coherent whole. It is an old idea with him: the Passacaglia of the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54)  is designed this way, as is the Metamorphoses section of Musique funèbre (1954-58), and the wild ‘polyphony of textures’ that comprises the finale of Jeux vénitiens (1960-61). Lutosławski returned to this technique often in the last years of his life: Grave (1981), Symphony No. 3 (1972-83), the Piano Concerto (1987-88) and of course the eponymous Chains 1 (1983), 2 (1984-85) and 3 (1986). As one might expect, in Chain 2 the two strands are often defined as solo violin on the one hand and orchestra on the other: the ‘dialogue’ of the subtitle.

Even if Chain 2 is not quite a full-fledged violin concerto at 18 minutes, this score offers such a wealth of substantive material that it still feels like a ‘big’ piece. Rather like the earlier Partita (with which it has much in common), the work alternates movements marked Ad libitum – characterised by freer rhythms and less rigorous interactions between soloist and orchestra – with movements notated in the conventional, metered way (A battuta). In the Ad libitum first movement, the violin plays continuously, inhabiting a wide range of characters, shifting mercurially from one to the next like an actor pacing about the stage, trying one voice after another. The orchestra offers comments and underpinning but never comes into its own, remaining subordinate to the soloist. The second movement (A battuta) is suddenly very different: a sort of scherzo in which the violinist alternates between demonic fiddling and sweet singing (marked in Italian rude, ‘angry’, and soave, ‘sweet’ – the same opposition Lutosławski invoked to describe church bells in the last of the Five Iłłakowicz Songs in 1957). But this is a scherzo that loses its way: each section is in a slower tempo, until the final iteration, launched by the timpani, is low comedy, complete with uncouth noises from the string section (a technique called ‘overbowing’ or ‘scratch tone’). The unravelling of this scherzo is modelled closely on the finale of the Double Concerto (1979-80), which uses precisely the same joke. The emotional centre of Chain 2 is the Ad libitum third movement, a violin cantilena marked molto cantabile whose melody is in a style familar from many earlier Lutosławski slow movements, from the Cello Concerto (1968-70) to the oboe Epitaphium (1979), to the Double Concerto, Third Symphony, Chain 1 and Partita. In many of these scores it is marked dolente, ‘sorrowful’, and here too the effect is of grieving: conjunct melody interrupted by grace-note ‘sobs’ like the Baroque pianto motif. Eventually all the violins join in unison with the soloist, wailing this melody higher and higher until abruptly, ruthlessly, it is cut off to leave the soloist a few last, inconclusive whimpers.

‘Inconclusive’ is the key. For this four-movement structure also reflects, if distantly, the bipartite, end-accented plans of works like the String Quartet (1964), Second Symphony (1965-67), and even Fourth Symphony (1988-92). This is one of Lutosławski’s most distinctive contributions: the realisation that for the psychology of the listener there should be only one main movement in a larger work (rather than, for example, two main movements – first and last – as in a Brahms symphony.) The Chain 2 finale is a brilliant perpetual motion, in which for the first time the orchestra engages as fellow virtuosos, leading to a massive group climax. The way out of the climax is characteristic, too: passionate cantilena playing on the violin over a radiant bed of string harmonies, calming little by little until almost extinguished. But no, we must have a strong, affirmative ending to tie up the loose ends: for this composer, no lingering in sentimentality. A whirlwind coda, Presto, brings the work to an emphatic close in a gesture that has much in common with the endings of the Double Concerto, the Third Symphony, the Piano Concerto and the Fourth Symphony: works that seem to trail off into some dreamy, personal realm, only to draw shut the curtain with a flourish at the last moment.

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