Concerto for piano and orchestra

  1. MM=110
  2. Presto, MM=160
  3. Largo, MM=40-45
  4. MM=ca 84
orchestration: piano and orchestra
  pf solo, 3(2picc)33(2 picc, 3clb)3(3 cfg), 4231, timp, batt, ar, archi
dedicated to: Krystian Zimerman
year composed: 1987-1988
about premiere
location: Salzburg
date: 19 VIII 1988
orchestra: ORF Symphonieorchester
conductor: Witold Lutosławski
soloists: Krystian Zimerman
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The Piano Concerto received its premiere on August 19, 1988, in Kleines Festspielhaus in Salzburg, in a performance by Krystian Zimerman to whom it is dedicated, and the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the composer; it was commissioned by the Salzburger Festspiele. In Poland it was first heard the same year at the closing concert of the Warsaw Autumn festival.

The piano possesses a significant role in Witold Lutosławski's oeuvre, in particular his solo works and songs composed in the 40s and 50s, but also an important role in his chamber works, while in compositions where it forms part of orchestral texture the composer bestows upon it - more than upon other instruments - specially featured tasks. Devoting the most significant role to the piano, i.e. composing the Piano Concerto, is an idea that reaches back to the 40s, but also one that was realized by Lutosławski only in the last, especially prolific period of creativity - the last decade brimming with masterly works.

Written in 1987-1988, the Concerto follows after the Symphony no. 3, the three Chains, and Partita, and comes before the Interlude, Chantefleurs et chantefables, and Symphony no. 4, thus it belongs to a late group of works that hold a similar significance in Lutosławski's entire oeuvre to Béla Bartók's music from the last decade of his life. The fact that Lutosławski took this much time before undertaking a project in this genre, whose vitality was frequently being questioned in the second half of the twentieth century, can be explained in several ways.

Certainly, a great creative excitement was created with the appearance of a pianist as superb as Krystian Zimerman for whom Lutosławski wrote the work, although numerous other interpreters testify to its extraordinary stage attractiveness. The next reason is the fact that in the 80s Witold Lutosławski's compositional technique, while still in flux and undergoing transformations, became in his self-critical judgement immaculate. Lutosławski realized that he had finished struggling with technical problems, finally breaking through constraints and becoming free to look for better compositional solutions than before; he recognized that he is able to use the language he created in an entirely unfettered manner.

It is symptomatic are that at this very time the role of aleatoric counterpoint in his scores becomes markedly diminished, the role of melody - surely a very personal and particular one - is decidedly strengthened, and the bi-partite formal model, spectacularly exhibited in the titling of the movements in the Symphony no. 2 Hésitant - Direct, ceases to be treated dogmatically. A trait characteristic of Lutosławski's late output is that its clear synthetic, Classicizing, and even Apollonian perfection allows for the existence of past idioms, but is free from postmodernist traits such as collage, multiple coding of non-congruent elements, poly-cultural and cross-over manipulations or outright plunderphonic sampling, as well as the mixing of ideas adopted from different levels of musical cultures. The Piano Concerto may be considered an example of a proud and simultaneously tolerant modernism which on one hand seems to say that there is no returning to the traditional form of the piano concerto, and on the other hand pays tribute to that tradition.

The Concerto is composed of four movements played attacca, but each possessing its own clear ending. To a significant extent, but by no means completely, the composer limits the ‘chain' principle, according to which one section of the composition still lasts, while another begins. The first movement makes a clear reference to Classical thematic dualism, particularly characteristic of the traditional sonata allegro which used to open this type of form in the past; however, this does not mean that it is realized with a literal approach to form. Each of the phases, which can be considered as analogous to traditional themes, self-divides into two sections. The second movement is marked moto perpetuo. It contains a virtuosic solo show realized with the background of orchestral instruments and occurs in counterpoint with them. If we were to make a comparison to the classical form of concerto (symphony, quartet, sonata, etc.), then we could claim that the ‘sonata allegro' first movement is followed by a scherzo full of bravado and exhibiting an almost brillant style, after which the third movement presents a type of ‘song' form with a beginning recitativo of the solo piano, and a cantilena largo theme. Usually, song form (just as the form of the symphonic scherzo with a trio in the middle) is cast in an A-B-A architecture. Here also one finds the contrast of the ‘singing' piano and the intense, and even dramatic character of the orchestral part. We arrive at the finale. A rondo? Variations?

Lutosławski has said: "The fourth movement, thanks to its architecture, is an allusion to the Baroque form of ciaccona. Its subject (always played by the orchestra) consists of short notes divided by rests, and not of chords, as in the traditional ciaccona. This often repeated subject creates only one layer of the musical discourse. With it as background, the piano forms ever new episodes. These two layers interact with each other on the principle of chain form, i.e. the beginnings and endings of the piano episodes do not overlap with the beginnings and endings of the subject. They meet only one time, near the end of the composition. Next comes a short recitativo of the piano played fortissimo with the background of the orchestra, and a short Coda (presto) which ends the work".

The above analogy with the traditional form of the genre is extraordinarily simplified, and to an extent even banalized. In the Piano Concerto the music remains Lutosławski's own, but as we have observed, more than in any other composition by him it ‘mingles' with musical tradition, which stands in contrast to the uses of tradition found in his other works. He was conscious of the fact that there is no place for any revolution in the concerto at the end of the twentieth century, a fact that also made him its creative continuator. What is striking is that although the trace of the Baroque widens the perspective, Lutosławski becomes a continuator of Romanticism with Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms at the forefront, and perhaps with the (unloved) Rachmaninoff; moreover, with Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Prokofiev, and Messiaen. But not Cage. Apart from discernible mini-quotations from Fryderyk Chopin's Concerto in f-minor there are no direct references to be found; instead, the references are to conventions. A super-conventional composition?

ach / trans. mk