Mark Wigglesworth, Stephen Hough and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play Lutosławski, Mozart and Dvořák, and a Note on the Separateness of Math and Music

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Stephen Hough

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall, 13 October 2011

Witold Lutosławski
Symphony no. 4

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto no. 21 in C Major, K467
Allegro maestoso
Allegro vivace assai

piano – Stephen Hough

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony no. 9 in E minor, opus 95
Adagio – Allegro molto
Scherzo (Molto vivace)
Allegro con fuoco

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
conductor – Mark Wigglesworth

Witold Lutosławski when he conducted himself preferred programs consisting solely of his own music to avoid entrapping the audience members who just wanted to hear again a classic (invariably put at the very end) and to encourage listeners who wanted to hear his music. However cynical you want to be about making the audience sit through avant-garde music to get to the ultra-popular Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, this was actually an adventurous program in being such a mixture. Risking the melomanic equivalent of the bends, somehow just avoided by virtue of the performance, specifically the Sydney Symphony’s style and close cooperation with visiting Britons Mark Wigglesworth and the very intelligent and feeling pianist Stephen Hough, the musicians made it all seem to hang together naturally, if loosely.

In 1939, Lutosławski was two years out of the Conservatorium and undergoing his Polish military service. He was luckily captured by the Germans and luckily managed to escape and return to Warsaw. Living in the nightmare of Nazi-occupied Poland, where in addition to perpetrating physical violence, the Nazis were also trying to annihilate Polish culture, he would play his own transcriptions of all kinds of music with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik in cafés, where most artistic activity was by necessity concentrated. He also worked on his own compositions including the First Symphony which he finished a little after the war ended. The “liberation” of Poland was of course not a true liberation and the Soviet Union tried to control art by attacking music as “formalist” rather than expressing the desired “social realism,” whatever that meant — Lutosławski didn’t himself understand why his music was  forbidden for being “formalist,” though later he also rather humbly and without embitterment pointed out that highly exposed Russian composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich had it far worse. By the 1960’s Poland was able to open up enough to let out some of his music and Lutosławski could not only hear his music played at home and make a living off his compositions, but could conduct his own music in the west. So he went to Tanglewood to teach for eight weeks in 1962.[1] I’m sure it was his unique voice among users of the modern compositional techniques which helped his music spread.

Witold Lutosławski. Photo: Sipa Press/East News

He took interest in John Cage’s aleatory (as in dependent on chance, from the Latin for dice) techniques — not in Lutosławski’s case the literal rolling of dice to choose certain note values by blind chance, but by letting nature make certain choices through the performers by leaving them certain important decisions about how the music is played, at the same time giving the individual musicians a larger degree of creative freedom, specifically in the timing of the different voices against one another — so called “aleatory counterpoint.” This kind of aleatory music is very different from John Cage’s flipping coins and rolling dice or opening up his music to the airwaves, as in Imaginary Landscape no. 4, putting trust in anonymous radio broadcasters. Personally I don’t believe in chance: nothing in nature is truly random though plenty is outside human control, comprehension and rational prediction through shear complexity or the shear infinite scale of the universe. Take the complexity of an orchestra. This all but naturally evolved ensemble of instruments has become so fit over the generations, that no single person, even with a computer’s total control over timbre can replace them for expressiveness. Really this inability to replace the old acoustic instruments is because because the computer’s total control leaves too many possibilities for a mind to comprehend. This controlled sound cannot replace the degree of faith or gut-feeling of the intuition of a well-practiced musician playing a well-made instrument who as a human being cannot fathom intellectually all the possibilities of their instrument at all times. There is also the faith the instrument makers put in their less scientific building techniques handed down from master to apprentice for generations, which work better than a rational analysis of the shapes of the wood and the different kinds of glue, say. Lutosławski, who wrote much and well about music, thought the classical orchestral instruments there to stay, though he did say that they weren’t meant serve 20th century music and he did admire the electronic music pioneering of Stockhausen and Pierre Shaeffer, he thought of theirs as a separate art.

Indeed if we take examples from this very program, we can see that music as a performing art has always had an “aleatory” component, in the wider sense. Composers leave much up to trust and never have total control over their music, not only in trusting to the intuition of the performer and instrument maker as mentioned above, but also the creative share in what the composer purposefully leaves up to the performers. Music is too irrational to be deterministic, and its connection to math tenuous (as Stephen Hough wrote recently in his blog). For example, in the well-known slow movement of the Mozart concerto K467, the pianist plays two-against-three, that is the right hand plays the melody in eight eighth notes in the space in which the left hand plays triplet repeated chords in 12 eighth notes per bar. To match the eight up with the 12 accurately, as Aristobulus Ursiclos [2] would explain away, mathematics tells us that we must find the smallest common denominator — in this case 24 — to split the measure into, the triplet left hand notes notes coming at 1/24, 3/24, 5/24, 7/24, etc. and the right hand’s eighth notes at 1/24, 4/24, 7/24, etc. so the second note note of the melody sounds exactly halfway between the last two members of the triplets. But that’s not music: all this may help a student get this peculiar rhythmic pattern right when meeting it for the first time, but it is not interesting, and it would sound irritating and mechanical played in this manner, as if hired robots were playing the music because they were cheaper than human musicians, something Mozart certainly didn’t intend for this piece. The right hand must be more free to play the melody truly. Mozart once wrote “everyone is amazed I can keep strict time. What these people cannot grasp is that in tempo rubato, in a slow movement, the left hand should go on playing in strict time. With them the left hand follows the right.”[3] The right hand needs more freedom to do justice to the melody. This is not “fuzzy logic” or chaos “theory,” but emotional, expressive and irrational. It is a wonderful thing to be able to steal time, something that feels quite impudent in this day and age, but time in music is nonlinear and this is not meant to be rational. The heart of music is primitive and intuitive.

Is this freedom, this irrational “cheating” against math really so different from “aleatory counterpoint”? Well, in practice they are very different, because Lutosławski’s style of combining different voices, the melody and the harmony, sounds in practice very different from Stephen Hough’s interpretation of the Mozart concerto, and the two composers use this relinquished control, this gift of freedom to the performer, in quite different ways, but, at an intellectual level, Lutosławski in his decision to notate his score in this way, with staffs floating in space on the page which don’t match up in any way that can be calculated or reduced to a simple formula, is surely making a statement (if one is needed) about the nature of music as a thing free from mathematics, in the way Mozart recognized and intended in writing out the second movement of this concerto the way he did. Lutosławski put this idea well when he wrote that he wanted to free the musician of the big ensemble from counting.[1]

Other aleatory techniques whereby dice rolls are assigned to different properties of a note — pitch, duration, timbre, etc., or even a total serial technique, which doesn’t seem to leave much at all to chance, whereby all 12 pitches, all durations and rhythms are used in sequence before any are repeated, in order to escape the ear’s tendency to classify by harmonic and melodic rules what it hears, in being so dependent on mathematics, may seem to be in opposition to Lutosławski’s variety of aleatory composition. Some of the scores of total serialist music seem to betray this dependance with their pages full of fractions and figures and diagrams. But even this is still music, with its deep expression of emotion independent of the math, and that is far more interesting than the “how was it made?”. The technique here is just a prop for the composer who first attempted this kind of music, like the student playing two-against-threes for the first time using calculations as a ladder in order to be able play the music at all, who then kicks it away. Schoenberg in part invented serialism as a tool because composing atonal music without it was so exhausting. In the end of course one must listen to the music without any prejudice against the compositional technique to judge it fairly and to have a fighting chance of enjoying it. What “mathematical” or overly “rational” music sounds like in practice, I don’t know. I’ve never been to a concert of robots and don’t care to imagine what it would sound like.

The performance of the Lutosławski Fourth Symphony showed how well the Sydney Symphony can play the hairier of 20th Century music, given the chance, which isn’t that often. I think the orchestra’s unique voice is indeed well suited to this style of music with its strings’ sunny lucidity and precise control of timbre, and an all round tendency to feel into the music, meeting each piece on its own terms, with good sense going into their interpretation. They played the piece, which is quite slippery in a lithe way, difficult to catch, even more difficult to follow, with great care; I would not want to hear it caught for fear of impinging on its freedom. Though it is here clear and light, sometimes minimalist, here nebulous, every note seems well-exposed and polished, making it impossible for any musician to hide even in this large orchestra. The orchestra Lutosławski chose is Mahlerian — similar to that of Mahler’s Sixth or Seventh — with two harps, celesta, piano and a large and varied percussion section. Lutosławski’s orchestration is also Mahlerian in so far that he was able to combine “conventional” instruments in a nuanced way which results in new sounds more than the sum of their parts and passes between disparate instruments eery in their smoothness, like from the vibraphone to muted strings. But Lutosławski manages to use these Mahlerian techniques in a novel way to make music which sounds little like Mahler’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It is remarkable that Wigglesworth and the Sydney Symphony sounded so thoroughly rehearsed because he is a visiting conductor; all concerned must have a strong understanding of the music coming from a genuine curiosity and absorption in it. In fact the First Violinist at this concert Dene Olding played Chain II with Lutosławski conducting the SSO when the composer visited Sydney in 1987.

Not least difficult are the aleatory sections, amounting to something like improvisation on an orchestral scale, and a Romantic-sized orchestra at that. One can imagine the challenge for one group of musicians to play independently of another, while still watching the conductor for the timing of certain significant moments marked in the score. To lean against Mahler again, I mentioned once of his Sixth Symphony that the combination of instruments and melodic themes has the depth and controlled sort of chaos of all the birds of the forest singing at once, as they do every morning when the light is still blue-gray. There is a similar sense of this in Lutosławski’s natural-sounding music, but in this case natural stems from the performers’ freedom. The “minimalist” parts too were natural, the very soft and subtly changing double bass note at the beginning of each movement sounded as if the music were coming gently out from the woodwork. The music sounded more controlled and artificial at times than birds, but then would crescendo suddenly into some quite unbeautiful sounds — not ugly in the negative sense, but still of an interesting character and unmuddy color, despite their being unpleasing if those chords were played on their own. The strings did not shy away from this, rather they seemed to easily modulate from clear and cool and ethereal to growly and warm.

As much as I enjoyed the music, it did seem to end arbitrarily — not so much that the ending was abrupt — that doesn’t really matter either way — but given Lutosławski’s descriptions of the care and thought he gave to the form of his music, here in the choice of two unnamed movements, it struck me as a piece which still had more to say at the end. I could be wrong to judge this on one listening; something can be said for a program which plays the same piece twice, especially an aleatory piece which can be very different each time it is performed.

After all that, the audience and musicians got a few moments to prepare themselves for Mozart while the excess piano, percussion, and chairs were wheeled off. Is anyone really prepared for Mozart though, magical and surprising as he is? No written description adequately prepares or does justice to his music. Stephen Hough’s playing of the concerto was quite gentle and understated in a pleasing way and the orchestra adapted itself easily to his manner of playing, pulling back nimbly from the more exuberant orchestral sections to the extraordinarily soft piano-with-orchestra sections.  Stephen Hough has a light touch, though with a certain bounce which is likely why he doesn’t need great volume to express his feelings about the music. He sparingly uses strong crescendos at times with good sense, his piano briefly singing out loudly, often in the development sections soon before the return or entrance of the main themes. The fast movements he played lyrically with a liquid quality, the slow movement had a fresh sunny quality with a child like bounce to his phrasing, qualities the piece can sometimes lack with other pianists who lay on the poignancy more heavily. The cadenzas sounded improvised and had a natural humor in their play with their movements’ themes, especially in the third movement cadenza, so I fancy this was maybe how Mozart himself would have played it. Hough’s playing, being so full of character in these ways, had a conversational rapport with the orchestra, returning their theme in a charming way when launching into his solo section, at times seeming to nestle into the orchestra, sometimes seeming to meet a cello or bassoon halfway and blur together with the other instrument. Something about this reminds me of Renoir and his desire to marry outline, specifically of his human figures, with the impressionist vision of nature, though this is not necessarily an exact parallel.

Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, so named because he accurately wrote ‘from the new world’ by the title, doesn’t speak to me as strongly as some other symphonies, I should admit. The gentle, beautiful, lyrical melodies seem to be leading somewhere, but get washed away by the very loud crescendos which ramp up so suddenly, especially in the final movement. These crescendos lead to extended, even drawn out, loud, brazen, rambunctious sections, though under Wigglesworth’s conducting these were more textured and massive than rambunctious, but still I find them difficult to sympathize with since they seem so impersonal, not human at all in character. Perhaps Dvořák intended the softer human personality on the one hand to get washed out by the collectivist impulse of the full orchestra on the other, but that seems too pessimistic to fit with the general flavor of the piece.

The orchestra did play it well, especially oboist Shefali Pryor whose strong, rhythmic sense gave her phrasing both lyricism and an exuberant fresh quality. In consort clarinetist Lawrence Dobell, English Horn Alexandre Oguey and bassoonist Matthew Wilkie had a very strong rapport, also playing closely with the brass. The orchestra’s precision and lucidity and Wigglesworth’s clean, strong rhythms brought out Dvořák’s fascinating Afro-Native American-sounding rhythms, which lend the piece immediate energy and a spacial sense, complimenting the open, airy chords of the piece. What it has to do with the Mozart and the Lutosławski piece, I’m not too sure, but the mixture of music somehow did sit well with me at the end of the concert.

[1] Witold Lutosławski, Zbigniew Skowron ed. and trans. Lutosławski on Music. Scarecrow Press, 2007.

[2]The unsympathetic scientist from Jules Verne’s Le Rayon-Vert.

[3]Letter of 24 October, 1777, W A Mozart to Leopold Mozart.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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