Wednesday 2 September 2015

A new release from Deutsche Grammophon of Lutosławski’s piano concerto and second symphony brings spectacularly fine playing from Krystian Zimerman and the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle making one of the finest Lutosławski discs now in the catalogue

The Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) was born in Warsaw. He studied with Maliszewski at the Warsaw Conservatory before forging a career as a pianist and composer. His initial style was tonal and much influenced by Bartok but from the late 1950s he developed a form of serial music to which aleatoric textures were added.

His earliest compositions culminated in one of his most popular works, his Concerto for Orchestra (1954). He went on to write much orchestral music including a total of four symphonies, works for voice and orchestra, chamber and piano music and songs.

His Symphony No.2 dates from 1965-67 and was commissioned by the Norddeutscher Runfunk for their 100th concert in the contemporary music series Das Nuue Werk. The second movement was premiered by the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, in Hamburg in 1966, conducted by Pierre Boulez. The first complete performance was given in Katowice by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer in 1967.

His Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was a commission from the Salzburg Festival and was written between1987- 88. It is dedicated to the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman who gave the first performance with Austria Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer as part of the 1988 Salzburg Festival. Zimerman went on to record the concerto for Deutsche Grammophon the following year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Now Krystian Zimerman  has returned to the studio to make a second recording of the concerto for Deutsche Grammophon  with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra  who couple the concerto with a live recording of the second symphony.

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The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is in four movements the first marked dotted crotchet = c.110. There are some wonderful colours and textures in the transparent orchestral opening that immediately reveal Lutosławski to be a master of the orchestra. When Krystian Zimerman enters he adds to the delicate texture achieving the remarkable effect of being both soloist and an important part of the orchestral texture, bringing a subtlety and innate understanding to this music. There are sudden orchestral surges and varying tempo and dynamics in the piano phrases before slowly achieving more of a flow as the theme develops in a masterly fashion. Simon Rattle secures some beautiful instrumental sounds from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as the music develops with hints of Bartok towards the coda.  

In the Presto - Poco meno mosso the piano works over the material alone before the orchestra joins to rush ahead with abandon, Zimerman, Rattle and the BPO providing such transparent textures as well as a fine understanding of the architecture of this music. Soon the music reaches a broad flowing peak before quietening to delicate piano phrases where Zimerman brings such fluid playing, beautifully phrased with a lovely delicate touch.  

The quaver = c.85 - Largo opens with a meditative section as the piano slowly ruminates on the material, beautifully developed by Zimerman. Brass lead to short stabbing phrases from the orchestra before the music rises in drama to an orchestral outburst followed by virtuoso piano chords.  The music falls quieter as the piano returns to its contemplation of the theme, gently leading to a hushed coda for piano.

Staccato double bass phrases bring the final movement, crotchet = c.84 – Presto, out of which the piano rises bringing a fast moving theme, played here with great control of dynamics, never allowing the poetic side of this Presto to be ignored. There is some very fine playing from both pianist and orchestra in this terrific movement that builds to a peak before falling back to quieter, gentle slow reflective passage. There are some lovely little instrumental details before the music starts to build again, the music hurtling through some dramatic virtuoso passages to a spectacular coda.

The recording of the Symphony No.2 is billed as a live recording made, as with the piano concerto, in the Philharmonie, Großer Saal, Berlin. In two movements, Hésitant opens with a brass flourish, discordant yet wonderfully alive and bright. A drum signals a change to a slower, quieter delicate passage where Lutosławski conjures up beautiful instrumental sounds, lovely colours and pinpoint textures. Woodwind bring their own lovely overlay of textures before the strings bring a passage where the brass add an urgency.  The woodwind return to bring a longer breathed theme, still with Lutosławski’s fine textures. A piano can be heard within a myriad of fine orchestral sounds, so delicate and transparent. There are moments when hints of Stravinsky can be heard. The textures, rippling of piano and orchestral instruments are remarkable, quite exquisite. Lutosławski’s ear for orchestral colour and texture is phenomenal, particularly as played here by Rattle and the BPO. Later a percussive section arrives that moulds perfectly into the preceding textures. Brass and woodwind take over to lead ahead before slowly drawing to a halt.

The second movement is marked Direct and opens from a hushed orchestra, low down with a slow swirling of low orchestral instruments heard moving around. Slowly the dynamics and tempo increase generating a terrific swirl of strings with other orchestral sections bringing a spectacular sound. Lutosławski creates an amazing overlay of orchestral sound, beautifully played here. There is a brass outburst and a scurry of wind phrases, before individual woodwind appear out of the texture. Soon the timpani bring a loud outburst and there are more woodwind flourishes before the music swirls again, though quieter and gentler. A piano joins to bring a rhythmic section as the music is suddenly shot into focus with braying brass and percussion in a noisy dynamic section. The swirling woodwind and strings appear again before the music hurtles ahead, full of wild interventions from various sections of the orchestra, reaching a pitch of dynamics and riotous sounds. The music suddenly quietens though with orchestral outbursts. A double bass ruminates against the hushed orchestra before the music fades to nothing. 

This is spectacularly fine playing from Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, with a first rate recording, this is one of the finest Lutosławski discs now in the catalogue. There are informative booklet notes. 


  1. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Barrett Wissman, chairman of IMG Artists and managing director of social media management firm Two Pillar Management. Barrett Wissman