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A symphony that — more than most — is open to interpretation

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, the NEC Philharmonia, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane, performs Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony no. 3. The work gestated for a decade before its 1983 premiere, as Lutosławski continued to develop ways of mixing fully notated and free, aleatoric music, a combination he had been experimenting with since the 1960s. In the Symphony no. 3, Lutosławski’s toolbox becomes fully flexible and adaptable: coordinated and uncoordinated music ingeniously flow into each other, the score indicating how individual players and groups of instruments are to be carefully cued in and out by the conductor.

The first performance was by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. As was his habit, Solti heavily marked up his copy of the score — now preserved at Harvard University, part of the conductor’s archive. Many of the markings are simply reminders: instruments to be cued, the number of beats in each bar, even individual beats, blazoned in giant, red-pencil glyphs. But the score also records Solti working out the architectural and practical necessities of a piece with no performance history. Background, structural rhythms are written out; Solti highlights key pitches and melodic chains by red-penciling letter names of notes.


Even more fascinating are Solti’s copious jotted questions. Lutosławski’s notation is carefully considered, but Solti is always trying to further pin down the intention. Why are there extra cue-beats in some free sections? How should the overall tempo of aleatoric passages relate to those with fixed rhythms? Then there are the fermatas: unmetered pauses, used for both expressive suspensions and logistical convenience, giving those unsynchronized excursions room to gracefully slide in and out of the overall structure. Next to nearly every fermata, Solti has written the same thing: “wie lange?”— how long? (Even when Lutosławski has indicated an answer, Solti cross-examines. On the very first fermata in the score, Lutosławski specifies “ca. 4” seconds; Solti, eyeing that “circa,” writes “4 seconds? or what?”)

“Wie lange?” turns out to be a crucial question for the symphony's interpretation. In the premiere performances, which were recorded for radio broadcast, Solti consistently erred on the side of shorter fermatas — that opening four seconds is closer to two, for instance — each pause the slight crest of a wave rolling into the next beat, the whole a series of dovetailing pursuits. But the first commercial recordings, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Lutosławski himself, give the fermatas more room, creating more of an elaborate mobile, examined from multiple angles. True to the work’s mix of free and fixed — and Lutosławski's command of his materials — the performances diverge with comparable eloquence.


Matthew Guerrieri

The NEC Philharmonia, directed by Jeffrey Kahane, performs music of Mozart, Sibelius, and Lutosławski, Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Jordan Hall (admission is free;

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.