Chain 2, Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra (1985)

By Michael Klein, Temple University

Written for the concert Creative Links: The Career of Witold Lutoslawski, performed on Nov 18, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Beginning with the completion of his Jeux vénitiens in 1961, Lutoslawski composed a long line of large-scale works of undisputed artistic significance. Throughout these pieces, Lutoslawski relied on the element of chance in what he called a “limited aleatory technique.” During so-called ad libitum sections, the conductor ceases beating time, while the musicians play their parts as if performing a cadenza—they need not coordinate their music with the remaining ensemble. The results are suspended moments of brilliant color and texture. Time stops while music makes a new world.

For all the color of Lutoslawski’s music after 1960, the composer realized that the limited aleatory technique came at the cost of clear melodies. By the 1970s, Lutoslawski was seeking ways to write thinner textures with more exposed melodic lines. One way to force the issue was to turn away from large ensembles and focus instead on chamber music. Thus Lutoslawski’s Epitaph for oboe and piano (1979), and his Grave for cello and piano (1981), though small in scope, proved perfect vehicles for concentrating intensively on melody.

Both the frenetic ad libitum sections and the strongly profiled melodies of his later music come into contact in Chain 2. Essentially a violin concerto, it is a four-movement work whose headings, Ad libitum or A battuta, indicate whether the performers will play in a free or a strictly metered way. The term “chain” refers to a musical form of his own invention, featuring overlapping strands of material. These strands are defined by orchestral color, and in the case of Chain 2 the solo violin represents one strand, while the ensemble represents the other. Paul Sacher commissioned Chain 2 and performed its premiere in 1986 with Anne-Sophie Mutter. (Lutoslawski’s sketches and manuscripts are now part of the collection at the Sacher Foundation in Basel.) Chain 2 is a dramatic and compelling piece that reaches an excited conclusion worthy of its great technical difficulty.