The Listening Room: Structure and Substance
24 Jan 2012
Inside the Classics

This is the second post in this month’s edition of The Listening Room, our discussion of music that composer Judd Greenstein finds meaningful, inspiring, or just plain good. For earlier Listening Room posts, click here, and add your own insights to the discussion in the comments section below…

Today, Judd talks about two of Witold Lutoslawski’s seminal works, and why they’re so uniquely able to engage us as listeners even without adhering to standard rules of Western tonality. Here’s Judd…

In his most avant-garde period, Lutoslawski’s works are often very challenging and can feel a bit “cold”. They often explore structural and formal concerns, working out the different possibilities of this new technique of “controlled aleatory“. There are some fantastic pieces from this period, but it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that his harmonic brilliance, evident in his early works, was brought into dialogue with the formal and textural language that he had by then perfected.

This marriage led to the absolutely brilliant pieces from his late-middle period. The music is not at all “tonal” in a traditional sense, but his control of voice-leading, counterpoint, and harmonic motion come through in a personal and extremely emotionally resonant language that’s all his own. From this point on, Lutoslawski uses only extremely simple, clear, and memorable musical motifs as his building blocks; if you’re listening carefully, you can follow the “story” of these motifs as they move forward through each piece, gathering meaning as they go.

The Symphony No. 3 is the high-water mark of this style. It is patient, clear, and beautiful on its own terms. I consider it perhaps the greatest Symphony since Beethoven (and yes, I’m aware that there were quite a few great symphonists writing music between the 1820s and the 1980s.) You have to check your expectations at the door in listening to this music. It’s not going to be as immediately approachable as was Steve Reich’s music, nor as lush as Messiaen will be when we get to that in a later installment of The Listening Room. Its often sparse and the harmonic language will be challenging — but the ideas are so clear, and the sounds so beautiful, that you really can follow the story and will enjoy the “characters” you meet along the way.

This exceptional recording, produced magnificently and conducted by a great orchestra with a conductor (Esa-Pekka Salonen) who is not only a Lutoslawski champion but a very good composer in his own right, captures the drama of the work and has some of the best “sounds” that I’ve heard in a Lutoslawski recording. As with Reich’s Tehillim, the end of the Symphony No. 3 is one of the best in the literature; suddenly, a new harmonic world emerges around a suddenly-lush texture, unlike anything we’ve heard before in the piece, recontextualizing everything that’s come before. It almost demands that you listen to the entire work again, right away, to hear how the work unfolds when you know what’s coming.

The Symphony No. 4 is one of the last works that Lutoslawski wrote, and represents the final period of his creative life, where he largely moved away from aleatory and wrote with an incredible efficiency — not quite late Brahms, but in that direction. This Symphony is a humbler piece of music, though more directly passionate; there’s less space between the notes, and more big melodies and dramatic flourishes, all in a shorter timespan. This is one of the late Lutoslawski works that I always suggest to conductors that they program, and if there’s a Lutoslawski resurgence in this country, it might well start with this fantastic piece of music.

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