Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994) Works for Solo Piano
Sonata (1934) [29:10]
Twelve Folk Melodies (1945) [11:15]
Bucolics (1952) [5:54]
Two Studies (1941) [5:22]
Three Pieces for Young People (1953) [5:25]
Invention (1968) [0:56]
Véronique Briel (piano)
rec. 2013, Mazowsze Ensemble Conference Center, Otrebusy, Poland DUX 0967 [58:01]
What a remarkable disc. This collection of Lutosławski’s solo piano music is remarkable, first, because there is no other recording like it. Certain of his solo piano pieces have appeared on recitals elsewhere. The half-hour-long piano sonata is on a Telarc disc by pianist Gloria Cheng. Incredibly, after several site searches I am unable to find a single MusicWeb International mention of Witold Lutosławski’s solo piano repertoire.
So Véronique Briel appears to have achieved a first. Let’s talk about the music here, because it’s all extremely good and the album makes me feel lucky to be a critic. The early Piano Sonata — from his student years — is, in fact, fully half of the composer’s output for the instrument, if you’re measuring by size. Its opening pages bear a striking resemblance to Ravel’s Sonatine, but with darker colors, and a less innocent frame of mind. Debussy preludes also lurk in the list of influences. Lutosławski begins the sonata so prettily that he can gradually ratchet up the dissonance level without seeming to write unnaturally.
The Sonata’s restless adagio builds to a yearning theme of great emotion, around 1:30. Lutosławski’s finale, which begins just as slowly, soon powers into a more energetic mode which jettisons all the last echoes of the French impressionists. It’s rare and interesting to hear a work outgrow its own influences. Consider it the young composer, in dialogue with himself, deciding who he will be.
By 1941, Lutosławski’s musical language had already advanced considerably, toward the style you hear in his First Symphony and Concerto for Orchestra. Only one minute of this disc was composed after those works were both finished. Both of the Two Studies are noteworthy miniatures, and — aside from the sonata — are the only serious piano pieces the adult Lutosławski wrote for adult performers. The first opens with a dramatic flourish similar to that of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 1, before transforming into a toccata-like blitz of chromatic writing. The second is only slightly less energetic, with frequent obsessive tics, when Lutosławski repeats a phrase over and over until getting it “right.” The booklet mentions Hindemith for a comparison; you might want to add Stravinsky.
The remainder is for young pianists, but if I could play them they’d be in my repertoire. Twelve Folk Melodies is what it says on the tin but you shouldn’t expect simple melodies in the style of Grieg or Dvorak. They have more in common with the melodies in Lutosławski’s early orchestral music or the material unearthed by Szymanowski and Bartók. Various guitar duos and quartets have arranged some of the tunes for their own repertoires. The Bucolics are known — if you know them — in a version for viola and piano, and are also heartily folk-music-inspired.
I’m rather taken with Three Pieces for Young People, particularly the longest of the three, which starts as a sort of alternate-universe Brahms Lullaby, with a simple, mournful accompaniment and an ambiguous ending.
Recorded sound is very good, pretty typical for a new piano release. There’s a useful booklet essay. Véronique Briel deserves a huge amount of credit for learning and playing this repertoire, and for doing it extraordinarily well. I don’t have other recordings to compare, but Briel plays a large role in helping to convince me of the music’s quality.
The only reason I would speak against this disc is if you, for some reason, only enjoy Lutosławski’s late-period aleatoric music. He stopped writing for solo piano long before reaching that stage. That said, if you have an appetite for 20th-century piano music, of all kinds, you need to hear this. From the youthful first pages of the sonata through the tiny, strange Invention from 1968, Lutosławski’s solo piano music is extremely good, and deserves to enter both the repertoire and your listening library.
Another survey of this under-recorded music is due to be released in a few months, by pianist Corinna Simon. The more the merrier.