Pole Position

This year could mark the coming of age of Poland as a musical nation. What took so long?

Norman Lebrecht

Andrzej Panufnik: Musically, he had a constant preoccupation with Poland

If the musical world was not up to its ears in Wagner, Verdi and Britten, it would probably spend this year contemplating the more troubling question of what, if anything, is meant by Polish music. 

Two men who sought an answer to that conundrum are celebrating back-to-back centenaries — Witold Lutoslawski this year, Andrzej Panufnik next. A third, Andrei Tchaikovsky, is being plucked from oblivion with a major operatic premiere in the summer. They add vastly to our appreciation of what it was to be a Pole in the century of its nationhood, and what it means today.

Poland is defined by musical statements. The liberation cry was articulated by Frédéric Chopin, mostly in Paris. It misled many successors onto a trail of false nostalgia for a prelapsarian paradise that never was. 

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, newly independent Poland was represented by its first prime minister, the pre-eminent pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Vous-êtes Paderewski, le grand pianiste, n’est-ce pas?” cried Georges Clemenceau.

Oui, Monsieur le President.

Alors, quelle chute!

Paderewski may not have seen politics as a comedown, but he lived to see his dream soured by Polish strife and crushed by a second German invasion. His music, like Chopin’s, clung to 19th-century conventions of romantic nationalism. In the next generation, Karel Szymanowski’s complex individualised idiom was condemned for its lack of patriotic zeal. Music in Poland was supposed to conform to political expectations.

After 1945, those expectations were harnessed to the Soviet agenda. Lutoslawski and Panufnik, friends who played four-hand piano at illegal cafés under the Nazi occupation (their Paganini Variations was the only score to survive the final conflagration), emerged unblinking into the Warsaw ruins to find commissars at their shoulder as they resumed composing. Both tried their best under severe constraints. In 1954 Lutoslawski presented a Concerto for Orchestra that was ostensibly a tribute to Bartók while subversively infiltrating forbidden dissonances. Panufnik, for his part, wrote a Homage to Chopin and a Rustic Symphony. He led a deputation to Mao’s China before, weary of state interference, he defected to England and settled at Twickenham.

The main course of Polish music ran thereafter in two parallel streams. Panufnik, availing himself of every modernist device, wrote nine symphonies whose austere structures revealed a constant preoccupation with Poland — the Katyn massacre, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, and more. Lutoslawski, politically inhibited, turned a 1960s thaw to advantage, assimilating the chance theories of John Cage in Venetian Games and the impressionistic serialism of Pierre Boulez in his second symphony, while filtering out popular songs through his sister-in-law, a cabaret artist. 

Polish music assumed two forms of exile, external in Panufnik’s case, internal in Lutoslawski’s. Officially they were unable to meet until Communism ended, though I heard from Andrzej that their dialogue continued throughout.

Panufnik died in 1991, Lutoslawski three years later. From the 1980s on, Lutoslawski’s music earned a much wider audience through the advocacy of such global interpreters as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Concurrent recordings of Lutoslawski’s music are appearing on Sony, conducted by Salonen rather loudly in Los Angeles, and on Chandos, where the lower-key approach of Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounds to my ear more closely attuned to the composer’s shy, elusive, insistently courteous nature.

Panufnik’s symphonies are appearing steadily on the CPO label, played with meticulous fidelity by one of the less-heralded Berlin orchestras and conducted quite intuitively by Lukasz Borowicz. This is a very good time to compare the two streams, side by side.

Not that they were the only tributaries. The deceptively quiet music of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) is gaining attention and the dangerously devout Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) somehow managed to write the most popular modern symphony on record. The resurgence of Polish cinema yielded two potent composers, Zbigniew Preisner and Wojciech Kilar. 

Yet, as we assess the mainstream, we ignore — as Poles do — the other, the non-contributor to the Polish story: the Jewish silence. That silence will be broken this summer at Bregenz when David Pountney stages the world premiere of The Merchant of Venice by Andrei Tchaikowsky. 

A Polish Tchaikovsky? No, it’s not his real name. He was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in 1935, smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto by his grandmother under a Russian composer’s name and kept alive for two years in a cupboard. His mother was murdered at Treblinka. Catching Arthur Rubinstein’s ear at a competition, he began an international career as a concert pianist, often insinuating his own compositions between Chopin and Schumann. The pianist Stephen Kovacevich called him “the best musician of my generation”.

He moved to London in 1960, developed passions for Shakespearean theatre and discreet male friendships, attempted suicide several times and died of colon cancer, aged 46, in 1982. He left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use as a prop in Hamlet. Two years ago, David Tennant appeared holding it on a 1st-class stamp.

The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s last masterpiece to await a major composer, was left within a few bars of completion at Tchaikovsky’s death. It has never been seen or heard before. Pountney’s production will take a huge leap into several dimensions of the unknown-Tchaikowsky’s gift for opera, the voice of a Jewish composer in the most anti-Semitic play in the canon, its performance on Austrian soil — above all, the interaction of Christian and Jew in a Polish creation, a concept so confusing it hardly exists in any form of Polish music.

What will be decided then, before the year is out, is the very nature of Polish music and, perhaps, of Poland itself in the 21st century. Is it a map of twin streams, nationalist and internationalist? If it is, it can safely be ignored. If not, we’ll have to redraw the map to imagine a very different Poland, more failed aspiration than fractious state, a Poland worth living in and dying for. That’s why this year could mark the coming of age of a hugely musical nation.

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