Polish Ambition – Antoni Wit Talks to Jeremy Siepmann

May 01, 2011
Antoni Wit
Antoni Wit
Photo: CJ Multarzynski

Though born and largely domiciled in Poland, and a world-renowned champion of his national musical heritage, Antoni Wit has long been counted among the natural aristocrats of the musical world. Educated in Poland, France and the United States, he has conducted many of the leading symphony orchestras in Europe, the Americas and the Far East. His repertoire is vast, his discography likewise, and four decades into his international career his musical appetite remains undiminished. We began our conversation, however, by looking back to the start of his professional life. Who were the shaping forces in his development as a conductor?

‘The most important of my early influences were the two Polish conductors with whom I worked very closely, Henryk Czyz and Witold Rowicki. It was they who really opened up my horizons. Czyz was actually my professor and Rowicki taught me most in my capacity as his assistant at the Warsaw Philharmonic. This was my first appointment after completing my formal education. And then, after taking Second Prize in the Herbert von Karajan Competition, I became his assistant. Needless to say, this was a very interesting experience! To tell you the truth, though, I learned most by simply observing him. I was immediately impressed at the sheer energy he gave to the musicians. Not the superficial energy that comes from the conductor’s movements, but something very deep in his personality. And the second thing, though it seems very simple, is actually extremely important. He laid great stress, with all his pupils and protegés, on his belief that young conductors should think more about the music than about technique. When a young man starts out as a conductor, he’s generally very busy, asking himself over and over “What should I do to get the right tempo? How do I make the orchestra play precisely together?” and so on and so on. And sometimes—and this is a real danger—that kind of thing really can make you forget about the music. I know this very well. I can observe it with my own students, as Professor of Conducting in Warsaw. Simple though it seems, this was Karajan’s principal message: “Please have in mind that the music is always the most important thing.” I know it seems very obvious, but sometimes in a conductor’s life you forget about obvious things! He didn’t go into great detail. He didn’t have time. When I was his assistant he worked like a madman, you know, during the whole day—even during the breaks. He seemed never to rest. But I could observe him, and occasionally ask him some questions, and from these two approaches I profited a lot.’

By no means all of Wit’s formative teachers were conductors. He also worked with the composer Krzysztof Penderecki and the legendary musical all-rounder and influential teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose pupils, interestingly, included many of the most notable American composers of the 20th century. What, I wondered, were the most lasting benefits of these experiences. ‘I think the greatest thing, the most important thing, was discovering how to understand a composer. In the case of Penderecki this has been an ongoing procedure, since I’m recording his works and therefore see him regularly. To be able to question and learn from a great composer like this is a tremendous pleasure and privilege. Nadia Boulanger had the same good fortune as I, with such great composers as Stravinsky and Ravel, and we spent much time analysing their works. What wouldn’t we give to question Brahms or Dvořák?!! I’ve been very lucky, though, having enjoyed excellent collaborations not only with Penderecki but also with Lutosławski and Olivier Messiaen, and such Polish composers as Henryk Mikolaj, Górecki and Wojciech Kilar. It was a fantastic experience getting to know these composers—not least because each is so different from the others.’

And does Wit himself compose? ‘No, no, no, no, no! Because I don’t think I could ever compose something I would like! Something that I would think was really beautiful. Sadly, I don’t think I have that gift. Way back then, I was really a composition student rather than a real composer, though I studied formally with Penderecki for two years. With Nadia, though, [who also turned her back on composition] we mostly analysed—speaking at great length about Stravinsky, Ravel…mostly 20th-century music.’

JoAnn Falletta with Kevin Deas, Hila Plitman, Fred Child and engineers
Maestro Wit and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Photo: R. Balcerzak

Never given to tunnel vision, Wit in his early years (following in the footsteps of Thomas Arne, CPE and WF Bach, Thomas Campion, Chausson, Dufay, Handel, Benedetto Marcello, Schumann, Schütz, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Tartini, Tchaikovsky, Telemann and Willaert!) enrolled in law school. ‘When I finished high school, I couldn’t immediately enter the music conservatory, because in Poland at that time you had to have finished secondary music school, which I hadn’t. Since I had some free time, I decided to study law. Two years later, when I started conducting, it wasn’t by any means certain, in my first year, that I could really make it as a conductor. My professor, Henryk Czyz, actually thought it was very wise that I should do the law. And in the two years that were left, I thought, “Oh it would be a pity not to finish this”, so I finished it! I actually enjoyed my time at university very much. I had a notable preference for logic, and mathematics, so I liked the legal constructions a lot, and even now, I think, it makes my job as General and Artistic Manager of the Warsaw Philharmonic a little easier. At least when I receive something, I can read and understand it!’

Though widely associated with the Warsaw Philharmonic in particular and with Polish music in general, Wit has long enjoyed an international career. In his conducting all over the world, has he, I wondered, found the reactions and characters of orchestras still quite distinct from one another? Or are we really becoming a global village, in which things have become relatively homogenised? ‘We certainly are becoming a global village, though the process is not finished. I’ve conducted for more than 40 years, and I can tell you that the differences between orchestras used to be much bigger than they are today. But even now, if you compare a Japanese orchestra with, say, a Korean orchestra, or a South-American orchestra, it’s another world. The differences today are not as fundamental as they once were, but they’re definitely still there. English orchestras, for example, are very flexible—you feel they want to do what the conductor wants them to do. The best German orchestras, on the other hand, are more rigid. They prefer their own tradition. And if you haven’t won their confidence, you may find it quite difficult to get them to play in a way they’re not accustomed to.’

All the greatest music, of course, transcends nationality. But is the non-Pole at a disadvantage when it comes to playing or conducting Polish music? ‘For a non-Pole it is a little more difficult—as I’ve often observed when a foreign orchestra plays Polish music. But the reason, I think, is simply that they don’t know the music as well, or as deeply, as we do. It’s not a question of knowing the notes, but rather the music behind and within them—the character, the tradition, certain possibilities of playing. I’ve noticed this especially when foreign orchestras, under foreign conductors, play Szymanowski. But I hear it even in such standard repertoire as the Chopin concertos, which are frequently played without the necessary depth and experience. Last year we had here both the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic, and great orchestras though these are, their playing of Chopin was plainly inferior to their playing of other music. I wonder sometimes if people somehow take these concertos for granted, with everybody thinking “Oh this is Chopin. This isn’t difficult; it’s simple. OK, OK: one rehearsal, or one-and-a-half.” In my opinion this is superficial. And that’s the difficulty. But if they really studied the work—if the conductor listened to different recordings of it—and performed it many times, then he would do just as good a job as we Polish do. For sure. I really don’t think, ultimately, that this has anything to do with Polishness.’

Does it ever frustrate Wit that Chopin, Poland’s greatest composer—one of the world’s greatest—wrote so little (and wrote so indifferently) for orchestra? ‘Yes. Yes. Of course it does. When we celebrated Chopin, for instance, last year, his bicentenary, it was very difficult to make interesting programmes, bearing in mind that we have only two concertos and four small pieces for piano and orchestra. And it’s common knowledge that Chopin really didn’t care much about the orchestra. His orchestration is notorious. But amongst the great composers, he was hardly alone in this. When you take a score by Prokofiev, who wrote a lot for orchestra, you can see at a glance that he prepared his scores in a quite neglectful way. Orchestrally speaking it’s not in the same class as a score, say, by Stravinsky or Richard Strauss. And I think it’s the same problem. Like Chopin, he wasn’t really interested.’

Karłowicz: ‘Rebirth’ Symphony – Bianca da Molena
Naxos 8.572487

Chopin, of course, is universal. Universally acclaimed, universally popular. To the great majority of music-lovers outside Poland, on the other hand, Mieczysław Karłowicz remains a largely (or completely) unknown quantity. ‘Yes, I think that’s right. Part of the problem, I think, is that he died at the age of 33, in an avalanche, before he was able to write very much. What he did write, though, we’ve done on four CDs. And the music reveals a great, great talent. The Violin Concerto, for instance, I think is one of the best of its time. Absolutely, yes. And the E minor Symphony is similarly outstanding. I’ve performed it quite a lot already, and will continue to do so. And I’m very happy to have recorded it. I’m also very happy with the finished product. I think it was very well done, and I hope it will help bring the work the recognition it deserves. In style, Karłowicz was very much a post-Romantic composer, that’s to say like post-Tchaikovsky, post-Richard Strauss, post-Glazunov—this kind of music. The symphony, in particular, is very Tchaikovskyian, even though Tchaikovsky own symphonies were written some thirty years earlier. But with time you forget about that. Just as we easily forget that Rachmaninov wrote his piano concertos in his 20s and 30s, yet the style is like late Tchaikovsky.’

Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust
Naxos 8.572430–31

Unlike Karłowicz, Schumann, of course (another law student), has been world-famous for close on two hundred years, give or take the odd twenty. Much of his work, however, remains unfamiliar to most music-lovers—not least the ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’, the latest addition to Wit’s Schumann discography. ‘I think that’s right. And that’s a pity, too, because this is a highly interesting piece—somewhere between oratorio and an opera, because there’s a real element of dramaturgy, including some actual dialogue. Interestingly, there is not the profusion of beautiful melody that one expects of Schumann and his epoch (from Mendelssohn, for instance, or Schubert or, later, from Verdi). But it’s really very beautiful music—just not in the same was as, say, Mendelssohn’s Elijah or St Paul. But I’m very glad to have recorded it. I have only one regret: I’d have liked it if it could have been released last year, during the Schumann bicentenary, because there was much more interest in Schumann then. But of course I understand very well that Naxos has its own policy, its own tempo, if you like, when it comes to marketing the huge amount that they put out, and these things must be decided accordingly.’

Wit’s latest releases are preceded by an astonishing catalogue of more than 180 CDs. Casting his mind back over this formidable output, what handful of projects stand out for him as the most rewarding peaks in his career? What does he remember with the greatest pleasure? ‘Oh! It’s so difficult to say! I’m very happy that we did all of Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Kilar and Gorecki—and many things of Paderewski and Wieniawski too. And we’re now going on to Moniuszko, Weinberg maybe, Panufnik and Bacewicz, so there’s a lot of Polish music still to come, which of course pleases me very much. I’m also very happy with certain individual recordings like Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, also my Schumann symphonies and Messiaen’s Turangalîla, which gained a distinction at MIDEM [Marché International du Disque et de l’Edition Musicale, the world’s largest music industry trade fair]. Then there are also some of the Mahler symphonies—particularly the Second, which I like very much—but those were made some twenty years ago, so obviously there are some I’d love to do again.’

Having done so much, does Antoni Wit still nurture unfulfilled ambitions? Projects that he would still love to grapple with? ‘Oh of course! I have many! But in many cases I just can’t afford the time at present. For example, Naxos approached me about recording all the choral pieces of Dvořák. This would be maybe five CDs, and I’d love to do it. As I say, I don’t have time for that now, but I’ll certainly make a start on the Requiem. I’d also love to record the Brahms German Requiem, but unfortunately Naxos wants a different orchestra and chorus for that. And of course, as I said, I still have many projects connected with Polish music!’

If the Devil does, as billed, find time for idle hands, he’d be well advised to give Antoni Wit a wide berth. I didn’t check this, of course, but I doubt that Maestro Wit can even spell the word ‘idle’.

More recordings by Antoni Wit on Naxos:

Antoni Wit Biography & Discography