Berlin, Zimerman Show Lutosławski As Modern Master

I may have suffered in Poland but yet my music is independent, safe, isolated from that. We composers are messengers from an ideal world.
Witold Lutoslawski: “I may have suffered in Poland, but my music is independent, safe, isolated from that.”

Lutosławski: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Symphony No. 2. Krystian Zimerman, piano. Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle. DG 479 4518. Total Time: 52:22.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – It is difficult to believe that Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-94), a dominant figure in contemporary music in the second half of the 20th century, passed away more than 20 years ago. Initially very much a traditionalist, Lutosławski was soon breaking new ground with almost every piece he composed.

CDcoverDuring the Second World War, Lutosławski earned a living playing piano in cabarets. During this period, he wrote the Paganini Variations, for two pianos, a brilliantly effective traditional piece; one of the best recorded performances features Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero at the 2007 Verbier Festival (DG 479 5096). After the war came Symphony No. 1, in which he also employed conventional harmonies and techniques. A fine piece, it was denounced by the Soviet authorities as being “formalist.” (Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic have recorded all four Lutosławski symphonies; Sony Classical 88765440832)

Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 2, which dates from 1965-67, represents a radical departure from earlier pieces in the composer’s development. By then, his style had become exceedingly complex, with extensive use of aleatoric (from the Latin word alea, meaning “dice”) or chance elements. These have nothing to do with improvisation; rather, all the notes are written out, and individual instruments/groups of instruments are invited to play “out of synch” with their colleagues. The composer controls the notes played and the instruments that play them but not how these elements relate to each other, all the while well aware that listeners without scores in front of them will have no way of detecting where and when these chance elements are in play. No matter; it is the beauty and freshness of the orchestral textures and the cumulative emotional power of the piece that are most important to the audience.

The symphony is in two movements of about 13 minutes each: the first, titled “Hesitant,” based on distinctive bird call figures in the woodwinds and ending with shattering repeated notes in the brass, is static and deliberately lacking in clear-cut rhythms or forward motion; the second, “Direct,” creates an effect of everything being pulled together and building toward a cataclysmic ending. Symphony No. 2, an absorbing and powerful piece, is played with total conviction by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Krystian Zimerman plays the concerto that Lutoslawski wrote for him.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra comes from late in Lutosławski’s life, composed in the years 1987-88, when he was in his mid-70s. Lutosławski was a virtuoso pianist in his youth, and he wrote this piece for Krystian Zimerman, the foremost Polish pianist of his generation. Like Symphony No. 2, it is highly complex for the most part, although in the last movement, the composer reverts to a more accessible style. In this last movement, a remarkable chaconne, the double basses lead off with the quirky theme and, as the movement unfolds, one can always hear the theme somewhere in the orchestral or piano part. Zimerman also recorded the concerto in 1989, with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony (DG 431 6642).

With its moments of exceptional beauty, passionate outbursts, and multiple opportunities for the soloist to show off, this concerto is one of Lutosławski’s greatest works and a piece that should be in the repertoire of all major pianists.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and