Up to 1918, the Łomża area and Warsaw lay within the borders of Russia, and so Moscow was the capital of the country in which Witold Lutosławski was born. He spent exactly three years in that city: from 15 August 1915 to 15 August 1918. That was where his family evacuated to, forced to flee the German troops which had occupied the Łomża area during the First World War. The Lutosławskis, long since committed to the movement for the regaining of Poland’s independence, continued their political activities in the new setting as well, but with tragic results. In 1918, the Bolsheviks arrested Józef (the future composer’s father) and his brother Marian, and in August that year both men were shot. Another victim of the soviet system was Witold’s brother. In the autumn of 1939, Henryk, participating in the defence of Poland as an artillery second lieutenant, was captured and ended up in a camp in Kozielsk. After some time, he was transported to a gold mine in Kolyma, where he succumbed to the gruelling labour and hunger and in October 1940 died of typhus.
In September 1951, Lutosławski was a member of a 22-strong delegation of the Society for Polish-Soviet Friendship that travelled to the USSR for a three-week visit. The guests were shown Moscow, Leningrad and Rostov, or more exactly the exemplary Giant sovkhoz on the Salsk Steppe. When such delegations returned, reports would be published; these would be more or less veiled propaganda. Lutosławski concentrated on the wonderful architecture of the Moscow underground railway, a concert by students of a composition class at the conservatory and the living conditions in a centre for creative work in Ruza.
Eight years later, when he received a personal invitation to a Moscow performance of the Concerto for Orchestra – conducted by Nikolay Anosov, in May 1959 – he refused, ‘for reasons that are difficult to express’, as he put it in the letter. He wrote the letter in French, continuing a tradition from the times of the Partitions; his mother’s family, whenever Russian officials appeared at their manor house in Łuka, Podolia, would talk with them in French, ostentatiously avoiding Russian.
In 1970, through the Polish Composers’ Union, Lutosławski received from Moscow a diploma of recognition awarded to him by the Soviet Composers’ Union for his ‘active role in fostering creative contacts with soviet musicians’. In reality, he continually avoided direct contacts with that country. Invited to a congress in Moscow in 1971, he twice turned it down, citing concert dates.
Lutosławski’s reserve towards Russia was only conquered by Mstislav Rostropovich. But then there arose problems created by the other side. When Rostropovich wanted to perform the Cello Concerto in Moscow, he met the resistance of the authorities. A performance announced for 21 May was cancelled just a few days before. Soon after that, the soloist was refused permission to travel to the Warsaw Autumn, where he was to perform that Concerto. Finally, after many months trying, Rostropovich achieved his aim, and a week or two before the concert date he telephoned Warsaw to invite Lutosławski to Moscow with his wife. On 13 December 1972, ‘the whole of Moscow’ attended the first performance in the Soviet Union of the Cello Concerto. The soloist and the composer were given a tumultuous reception, but the next day not a single review appeared in the press.
Lutosławski stood on the conductor’s rostrum in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 29 November 1978. By then, he was the most frequently played Polish composer in the USSR, and two years earlier Lidia Rappoport’s book on his music had been published.
‘Two weeks before Witold Lutosławski was due to arrive, tickets for his concerts were sold out – related Irina Nikolska. – Attracted by the possibility of getting to know the composer’s works, both earlier compositions and those written quite recently, music lovers were also intrigued by the performance side: few had had the opportunity to observe Lutosławski on the conductor’s rostrum. Besides that, curiosity was piqued by that “duet of stars”: Lutosławski the conductor and Natalia Gutman the soloist in the Cello Concerto. The limited number of rehearsals and the difficulties with the orchestral parts not arriving on time – that all hindered preparations for the concert. The daily rehearsals, lasting many hours, were extremely creative, relentless and diligent. Although the orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic displayed the utmost goodwill and effort, it was no easy matter to master the principles of ensemble playing ad libitum. Lutosławski struck up good contact with the orchestra remarkably quickly; from the second rehearsal onwards, he stopped using the services of an interpreter, mastering Russian musical terminology with lightning speed. Listeners armed with their scores were present at nearly all the rehearsals; Edison Denisov would come with a group of his students, composers, musicologists and many others’.
After the concert, ‘the enthusiastic mood was crowned by a romantic event that preceded the composer’s departure for Leningrad, when shortly before midnight a Georgian choral ensemble came to the Metropol Hotel and the sounds of old Georgian songs rang out, performed by folk musicians in honour of the maestro’.