In the autumn of 1952, Witold Lutosławski was delegated to East Berlin, to a new music festival combined with the GDR composers’ congress. He returned there as a composer and conductor two decades later (in 1971 and 1974), invited to monographic concerts by the orchestra of the Komische Oper. At that time, the KO’s repertoire included the ballet Kaleidoscope, with music that drew on Lutosławski’s Postlude No. 1(in the case of works that he did not rate very highly – and Postludewas one of them – he rarely agreed to them being used by choreographers). In 1980, Lutosławski appeared in East Berlin once again, with theStaatskapelle ensemble. On that occasion, he conducted the Concerto for Orchestra, giving the audience quite a surprise. During the Intrada, there was rather a commotion in the auditorium, since some of the patrons were perfectly familiar with the music and suddenly discovered its source. They recognised the theme tune of the West German television programme ZDF-Magazin, which in the GDR was officially banned.
The composer’s initial contacts with West Berlin were rather problematic. In February 1965, Lutosławski was due to appear with the RIAS Kammerchor, co-conducting Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux, but he was refused a passport (in the People’s Republic of Poland, such documents were not kept at home; after each journey, they had to be returned immediately to the relevant Passport Office). The reason for the refusal was the identity of the concert organiser,Sender Frieies Berlin (SFB); in the eyes of the communist authorities, the name ‘Radio Free Berlin’ was simply too provocative. Other ensembles did not draw quite such a reaction, but Lutosławski had to wait another ten years for his West Berlin debut, which came about thanks to the Berliner Philharmoniker.
When in Berlin, it was the Philharmonic Orchestra that Lutosławski conducted most often (1975, 1978, 1981, 1985, 1988). With him and with other conductors, that orchestra gave performances of thirteen of Lutosławski’s works during his lifetime, including the first performance of Les espaces du sommeil, composed by Lutosławski for Dieter Fischer-Dieskau. The Berliner Philharmoniker, under the composer’s baton, made the first recording of that work as well, and also of the Third Symphony.
Thanks to its leader, Simon Rattle, in 2013 the Philharmoniker commemorated the centenary of the composer’s birth. As Rattle said, ‘For us, the entire season 2012/2013 is extremely interesting, because we’ve had the opportunity to perform many works by Witold Lutosławski’. The celebrations were inaugurated by the Third Symphony, and during rehearsals – as Rattle continues – ‘older members of the ensemble came up to me to admit that they felt embarrassed. They said that they remembered when Lutosławski came to Berlin and in November 1985 recorded that symphony with the Philharmoniker. “At the time, it didn’t seem like good music to us, and he was such a nice man. We adored him, but what he wrote seemed senseless to us. How could we have been so stupid, so blind?”’.