Self-confessed technology junkie Esa-Pekka Salonen has brought the benefits of his digital enthusiasms to his orchestra, the Philharmonia. Ahead of their new series devoted lock, stock and much flaming percussion to Stravinsky, I had a wonderful chat with him and with the Philharmonia's head of digital, Luke Ritchie, about the composer and how the orchestra has been using adventurous technological projects to attract new audiences, from virtual reality to a very lively website with a specially filmed documentary. Out now at the Independent.
The Philharmonia Orchestra is playing proud host to the pianist Daniil Trifonov at the moment. He's playing all the Rachmaninov concertos. Last week I was lucky enough to catch the concert that included both No.4 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Observer's critic didn't mince her words: "He is, no other word, a phenomenon." Hear hear.
The other night Krystian Zimerman lifted the score of Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto off the RFH Steinway and kissed it. But by then it was the London public that was really taking the piece to their hearts. It couldn't have had better advocates. Zimerman's playing offered all its characteristic meld of white-hot power and molten-gold touch - the sound for which this work was originally conceived - and Salonen, himself a composer, naturally sculpts a work's structure into clear lines, allowing it to stand out in vivid 3D.
The concerto, though, seems to operate in more than three dimensions. It's in four sections, played without a break and, throughout, Lutoslawski's control of timbre, his imagination for the most minute touches of colour - flecks between woodwind and percussion echoed high on the piano, or the terse, secretive, scurrying chaconne idea on the double basses that opens the last section - provides a unique "finish" on top of his strong architecture and the considerable flair he demands in the solo part.
Some of the magnificent piano writing resembles a giant fantasy on Scriabin or Liszt; at other times it puts one in mind of Bartok's 'Night Music', echoes of strange creatures from invisible corners. Above all, its vision has integrity, its form offers an entirely personal twist on the tradition and its voice - whooshing the concerto concept into the late 20th century, hands first - should assure it a place in the standard repertoire from now on. It's not easy listening - whoever said listening should be easy in any case? - but the better you know it, the better if gets.
As for Lutoslawski's comment that the piece is "very playable" because, as a pianist himself, he wrote it to be so...that might seem amusing to anyone peering over at the antheap of notes assigned to the soloist. But I'm reliably assured (by Zimerman) that the bits that sound difficult are not in fact the hardest to play. He is, incidentally, in marvellous form.(And no, he didn't bring his own piano this time - apparently this concerto, written to be played on a modern concert grand, doesn't need anything more.)
Where next for the contemporary piano concerto? Ligeti's is a favourite of mine - if I'd been a real pianist it would have been top of my liszt. What a pity it is that, as we hear on the grapevine, certain efforts to persuade him to write another, bigger one didn't come to fruition. James MacMillan's concerti and the two by Lowell Liebermann have both fared well, not least thanks to the ballet world - the Royal Ballet whiz-kid Liam Scarlett has now choreographed both of the latter's. But what the rapturous reception for the Lutoslawski seems to prove is that the form is far from exhausted, the notion of it anything but dead, and there's an excitement out there that's ready to celebrate exploration and adventure within a familiar genre.
The mixture of The Rest is Noise, The Minotaur, Lutoslawski's centenary and adventurous individuals advocating the new, strong and creative - notably Kasper Holten at Covent Garden - already seems to be transforming public appetite for recent music and fresh masterpieces to succeed it. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to experience an epiphany over Boulez at the Proms last summer, thanks to Barenboim. New and recent music needs great performances to win new and thriving audiences. On Wednesday night, Lutoslawski got one. Here's to many, many more.
The Witold Lutoslawski centenary festival, Woven Words, is about to get underway, opening on Wednesday evening at the Royal Festival Hall and named after the composer's 1965 work Paroles tissees. A look at the Philharmonia's designated website reveals that it's a fabulous resource. Hooray for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which is pumping support into this essential celebration of one of the century's towering musical figures.
The site includes a series of films exploring Lutoslawski's turbulent life history, tracing World War II and the Stalinist years in Poland with archive footage, musical extracts and fascinating insights from Steven Stucky (the series advisor) and other leading academics, as well as conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. And Mrs Spilman is interviewed, explaining that her husband Wladislaw (whose memoirs, The Pianist, I'm sure you know about) as head of music in Polish Radio, encouraged Lutoslawski to compose popular music under a pseudonym to keep body and soul together in the traumatised world of post-war and Stalinist era Warsaw.
During the Nazi occupation Lutoslawski and Panufnik worked together, playing piano duos in coffee houses in the Polish capital: normal musical life had been snuffed out and Chopin's music - as a symbol of Polish national pride - had been banned. (Music/politics/mix...). Essentially, the story of Lutoslawski is the story of Poland in the 20th century.
As the festival's slogan reminds us, "Music begins where words end." I've often started lectures, essays, commentary et al with that phrase and I knew I'd borrowed it from someone... How pleasing to discover that that someone was Lutoslawski. [UPDATE: oops - apparently Debussy got there first.] If you missed it the other day, here is my one and only interview with Lutoslawski, from a meeting in 1992, now available to read for the first time in all those years, courtesy of Sinfini.
To kick us off, listen to the Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos, which he and Panufnik used to play together in those cafes. Tragically, most of their other manuscripts from the war years went up in flames. Here the performers are Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero.
...Bartok is brilliant, and so are you, Nick Hillel and Esa-Pekka Salonen. I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek at the visuals that Nick's studio, Yeast Culture, is creating for the Philharmonia's latest multi-media project: Bartok's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the culmination of the orchestra and Salonen's intensive exploration of Bartok that has lasted most of 2011. The production tours in the UK and aboard from 21 October. My article is in The Independent today, and if you follow this link you'll also see a video from the orchestra showing how some of the film was made. Left, Bluebeard's roses appear to fill with blood.