The centenary of Poland becoming an independent country has been commemorated through numerous cultural events this past year; this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra being not only apposite but enterprising in the music which was chosen to mark this event.
Elgar's music written during the First World War has come in for deserved reappraisal over recent years, with Polonia (1915) arguably his most impressive such piece – not least in the way that its quoting of several Polish melodies are integrated into a cohesive and constantly evolving design. Michal Nesterowicz directed an impulsive reading which, while it may have lacked the nobility found in Sir Adrian Boult's recording, brought out the fervency and eloquence of this not inconsiderable work.
Orchestra and conductor were duly joined by Janina Fialkowska in the Piano Concerto (1888) by Ignacy Jan Paderewski – pianist, composer, statesman and philanthropist. Whatever the attractions of his (over-) ambitious Polonia Symphony or full-length opera Manru, it is this Concerto that presses the strongest claims on listeners today. Fialkowska evidently thinks so too – witness her incisiveness of response in the finely proportioned Allegro with its seamless integration of soloist and orchestra, limpid poise in the wistful 'Romanza' (currently a Classic FM staple), then propulsion in a Finale whose grandiloquent restatement of its chorale theme feels entirely fitting in context. Nesterowicz and the BBCSO provided steadfast support in a performance which certainly reinforced this piece's re-introduction to the repertoire.
Now in his mid 60s, Pawel Szymański is a name largely unfamiliar in the UK. His Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson Overture (2018) reveals a composer still intent on evolving the sonorist thinking of the previous Polish generation, with the fourteen brief sections establishing a viable continuity despite (even because of?) their disjunctive contrasts. Quite what the music has to do with Wilson’s fourteen points in general (and his thirteenth 'Polish' one in particular) is unclear, but the characterful immediacy of its expression was never in doubt.
The evening ended in an all too infrequent revival of Lutosławski's First Symphony (1947), a work whose protracted gestation across the Second World War is balanced by that innate classicism which informs even the most radical of his later works. If the Third of Roussel's Symphonies was its likely starting-point, the ingenuity by which Lutosławski modifies the sonata format in the outer Allegros, along with the finely wrought eloquence of its slow movement, then interplay of the ironic and ominous in its intermezzo, already proclaim a composer in full command of his resources. Nesterowicz responded in like manner as he steered the BBCSO through an assured and perceptive reading that, if lacking a degree of inwardness in those central movements, projected the music's vitality in heady measure. Overall, an impressive programme which did justice to the pieces played as to the occasion itself.