Métaboles for large orchestra
Symphony No. 2 in C major
With Métaboles, Henri Dutilleux created a set of variations of brilliantly orchestrated orchestra pieces in which the maverick and grand old man of French modernism kept “pondering the mysterious and fascinating world of continual transformations”. In terms of construction, the work, composed in 1964 and commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, is a virtuoso concerto for orchestra in which the various instrumental sections (woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion) consecutively come to the fore.
In Witold Lutosławski’s cello concerto, in which the Hungarian cello virtuoso Miklós Perényi will be the soloist, the cellist is in contrast the protagonist of the musical events. The piece, which shimmers between impressionist scintillation and expressive outbursts, by a composer who was stigmatised as a formalist in Stalinist Poland, addresses the relationship between the individual and society “in a kind of duel” (Lutosławski) where the outcome seems open. In contrast, the interplay of the varying musical forces in Schumann’s Second Symphony reaches its triumphal conclusion in the finale.
In the process, the manifold musical ideas of that movement, as Ernst Gottschald already rightly observed in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, “are linked together with an intrinsic spiritual bond.” So it comes as no surprise that Schumann’s contemporaries – after the successful premiere of the work on 5 November 1846 – declared him the worthy successor to Beethoven.
“I don’t know anything more precise about the reasons that lead me where I go. I think that, in a style that grows and develops in small steps, constants can be found, recurring factors that gradually coalesce as personal traits.” One such style-forming constant in the French composer Henri Dutilleux’s work is the idea of progressive development and continual transformation of the musical material. “I use small cells which are gradually developed. Perhaps I was influenced by literature – by Proust and his idea of memory.”
Within Dutilleux’s intense preoccupation with processes of musical transformation, Métaboles occupies a special position. The basic subject of this tonally sumptuous work for large forces is already indicated by its unusual title. The Greek-derived concept “métaboles” refers to processes of change and transformation. Dutilleux writes in an introductory note: “This concept … reveals the author’s underlying thoughts in creating the five movements … In each of the movements, the initial idea undergoes a series of transformations. At a particular stage of development … the deformation becomes so evident that a true change of nature occurs in which the new shape seems to allude to the next in the symphonic texture. This is the anticipation of the idea that enters at the beginning of the next movement.”
But the fascination of Métaboles lies not only in its marvellously accomplished musical metamorphoses but also in the composition’s concise tonal dramaturgy and the virtuoso handling of the orchestra. Each of the five movements – seamlessly interconnected, as almost always in Dutilleux – places a different orchestral section in the foreground. The first movement is dominated by the woodwind, while the second is confined to the strings. The brass come into their own in the third movement, and the percussion assume a prominent role in the fourth. Then, in the fifth movement, the instrumental groups are placed “on an equal footing with each other, either coinciding, conversing, opposing or merging”.
Witold Lutosławski is one of those modern composers with whom Dutilleux feels a special affinity. The French musician once explained this connection with his Polish colleague, three years his senior, as follows: “It seems to me that he may have viewed the problem of musical language in almost the same way.” There are indeed some remarkable parallels between Dutilleux and Lutosławski. Both composers were long outsiders in their respective cultural milieus. Although they followed the developments of the musical avant-garde with interest, in their own works they pursued their own paths. Both evolved an individual musical language at a critical distance from closed aesthetic systems and dogmas, in each case an idiom permeated by varied tonal and harmonic systems. Then in the late 1960s Dutilleux and Lutosławski themselves converged in their compositional projects. Mstislav Rostropovich asked them both to write works for cello and orchestra, and gave the two premieres within a few months in 1970.
Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto is a thoroughly theatrical work, one that brilliantly plays with the genre’s conventions and dramatic possibilities. The point of departure, as with every solo concerto, is the juxtaposition of soloist and orchestra, individual and collective. In the four movements, which – as in Métaboles – follow on without a break, Lutosławski explores different ways of playing with and against one another. One quickly notices that, in the course of the 25-minute piece, the various musical actors not only forge different alliances but all repeatedly slip into new roles.
The work’s particular compositional techniques result in a special element of tension in the competitive aspect of concerto form. Traditionally notated passages, in which the composer has precisely fixed the instruments’ ensemble playing temporally, alternate with sections in “aleatory counterpoint” – a trademark of Lutosławski’s composing since the 1960s. In these portions of the work, the melodic and rhythmic shape of the individual parts is determined exactly, but their coordination is left to chance; thus there is no centralized control of timing. The conductor is required only to indicate the starting and ending points of these sections, otherwise intently following – like the musicians and listeners – the outcome of a free interplay of the instrumental actors.
Whereas Lutosławski was inspired to develop “aleatory counterpoint” by an encounter with John Cage’s Piano Concerto, the “Great C major” Symphony by Franz Schubert was a key source of stimulation in the creative output of Robert Schumann. In 1841, following a period of intensive study of that monumental work, whose fair copy he discovered during a visit to the late composer’s brother Ferdinand in Vienna, Schumann achieved the symphonic breakthrough he had long striven for with the “Spring” Symphony and the first version of the Symphony in D minor (eventually revised and published as the Fourth). In December 1845 he heard Schubert’s symphony again at two concerts in Dresden, and a few days later he began composing his own C major Symphony.
The contrapuntal refinement, ingenious thematic treatment and dramatic power of the Second Symphony, completed in October 1846, already impressed Schumann’s contemporaries. The work’s constantly emphasized synthesis of poetic inventiveness and artful workmanship is apparent right from the opening passage. The slow introduction to the first movement begins pianissimo with a brass chorale that almost seems to be wafting from a distance. The fanfare-like 5th motif on trumpets, horns and trombones, with which the chorale begins, and the simultaneous contrapuntal layer on the strings assume the function of a thematic germ cell.
The chorale idea not only determines the tone of the introduction, it is of central importance for the musical train of thought of the entire work. The fanfare-like opening motif returns towards the end of the first movement, at the end of the Scherzo that follows it, as well as in the extended coda of the finale. There it introduces a monumental final chorale, which represents both the goal and the end point of the symphonic development.
As a letter by the composer from April 1849 suggests, the depressive undertone of the third movement, but also certain dark and broken passages in the other movements, can be connected with the state of crisis in which the work was created: “I wrote the symphony in December 1845 while still half sick; it seems to me that one must hear this. Only in the last movement did I begin to feel like myself again; I became really well only after completing the entire work. But otherwise, as I said, it reminds me of a dark time.”
Miklós Perényi began his cello studies with Miklós Zsámboki when he was five, and gave his first concert in Budapest at the age of nine. From 1960, he studied with Enrico Mainardi and Ede Banda. He was a prize winner at the International Pablo Casals Cello Competition in Budapest in 1963. He then attended master classes several times with Casals in Zermatt and Puerto Rico. Miklós Perényi is a much sought-after soloist internationally, and is a regular guest at the music festivals in Edinburgh, Lucerne, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, Hohenems, Warsaw and Berlin, as well as at the cello Festival in Kronberg, the Pablo Casals Festival de Prades (France) and at the Marlboro Festival. His repertoire, which he has presented in numerous concerts with orchestras, in solo and duo recitals, and in chamber music concerts in Europe, the USA and Asia, includes works from the 17th century to the present. Since 1974 he has taught at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he has held a professorship since 1980. In addition to his concert and teaching activities, composing works for large and small instrumental ensembles and solo cello form another focus of his work. For his artistic work, he was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1980 and the Bartók Pásztory Prize in 1987. Miklós Perényi made his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2001 as the soloist in Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. In his most recent Philharmonic concert in mid-June 2011, he was heard in the world premiere of the Cello Concerto Grosso by Peter Eötvös, conducted by the composer.