About this Piece
Length: 23 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (1st, 2nd, and 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, celesta, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1983, with cellist Daniel Rothmuller, the composer conducting (West Coast premiere)
Born in Warsaw in 1913, Witold Lutoslawski showed prodigious musical and intellectual talent from an early age. His composition studies in Warsaw ended at a politically difficult time for Poland, so his plans for further study in Paris were replaced by a period which included military training, imprisonment by the Germans, and escape back to Warsaw, where he and his compatriot Andrzej Panufnik played their own compositions and transcriptions in cafés.
After the war, the Stalinist regime banned his First Symphony (1941-47) as "formalist," but he continued to compose; in 1958 his Musique funèbre, in memory of Béla Bartók, established his international reputation. Lutoslawski lived to see himself considered among the important composers of the 20th century.
Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto often consists of many simultaneous strands that at times seem related, at other times not, woven together in a fantastic quilt of sound. Lutoslawski's musical strands seem to bounce and collide off each other like highly-charged particles trapped in a vessel. Indeed, his music conjures up an image of "controlled chaos." Through a brilliant notational scheme (which gives the performers limited freedom to improvise), the composer engendered spontaneous energy in the performers while at the same time controlling it.
The Concerto was written for, and dedicated to, Mstislav Rostropovich. He premiered the work on October 14, 1970, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Edward Downes.
In this continuous-movement Cello Concerto, Lutoslawski alters typical concerto form. The solo cello introduces the work alone, boldly proclaiming itself, as if in mid-cadenza. And the orchestral entrance is not the expected orchestral entrance at all - no echo of the first theme here. Instead, the solo is greeted with a sharp stab on a single note by three trumpets.
But herein begins the tradition. The proverbial repartée between orchestra and soloist, a mainstay of concertos since the Baroque, does occur, though it comes in a very unexpected way. A tussle for musical dominance ensues. What began as two-fisted trumpet interjections builds in intensity, eventually including climactic kicks-in-the-head by full brass, pouncing percussion, and heroic virtuosity in the solo cello part that willfully rises above it all.
A series of episodes ensues, culminating in an orchestral shmear which seems to obliterate the cello from the map. The soloist returns determinedly, however, for a slower cantilena section as the whole orchestra answers the soloist's willful showing. A quasi finale follows; eight orchestral punches seem to announce the orchestra's triumph, but the solo instrument returns for the coda, recalling the opening and signaling its ultimate dominance - or, in Rostropovich's view, transcendence.
- Composer and writer Dave Kopplin is on the faculty of California Polytechnic University, Pomona