Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1987-88) [25:54]
Symphony No. 2 (1965-67) [26:08]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle
rec. Grosser Saal, Philharmonie, Berlin, September 2013
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4518 [52:22]
Krystian Zimerman made the authoritative recording of Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto back in 1989, also for DG, under the direction of the composer. That account has stood the test of time, but has not discouraged other pianists from taking up the work. Paul Crossley recorded it with Esa-Pekka Salonen for Sony in 1994 and more recently Leif Ove Andsnes impressed me with his performance of 2007 on an EMI disc that I reviewed for this website. Louis Lortie also tackled it a few years ago, an account I have yet to hear. Now Zimerman has returned to the work and given us his latest thoughts. It’s no exaggeration to claim that this new reading is superior on virtually every level to his earlier effort, and in Simon Rattle he has a conductor who is an ideal partner. Lutosławski himself was no slouch as a conductor of his own music, though. Those who possess the earlier disc should not discard it, particularly as it also contains sterling accounts of two of the composer’s most attractive scores, Chain 3 and Novelette. It is still available from DG and even advertised on the back of the CD booklet here.
The Piano Concerto is one of Lutosławski’s most accessible works and one of his greatest. If I had to choose only one his compositions, it would have to be the Symphony No. 3 as my favourite. The Piano Concerto would be right behind that work. It comprises four movements, each ending with an attacca, meaning that the next one begins with a barely noticeable break. Andrew Clements in The Guardian considers this concerto and Ligeti’s the most important works for piano and orchestra since Bartók, and I would have to agree with him. Indeed, Lutosławski here looks both forward and back to Bartók. In the third movement marked Largo, for example, there seems to be a deliberate nod to the earlier composer’s “night music”, particularly as found in the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 3. Yet, the intricate, pearl-like piano writing placed against a kaleidoscopic orchestral background could come from no other composer. In his new performance Zimerman, while as technically outstanding as ever, seems freer than before and employs a bit of rubato in the slow movement. If his loud piano crash that stifles the horns at 5:15 does not have quite the impact of the earlier disc, that may be due to the sound to some degree. The new recording is slightly more distant but very natural, and the integration with the orchestra couldn’t be better. The Berlin Philharmonic excels throughout with the many woodwind solos beautifully played. Rattle emphasizes the timpani roll at 3:36-3:38 in the first movement, making more of it than in any of the other versions I’ve heard. The percussion is particularly noteworthy in the passacaglia finale, as are the deep, resonant double basses at the beginning of the movement. This will now be the recording of Lutosławski’s concerto I will return to most often, though I won’t neglect the others — especially the one from Andsnes.
The other work on the disc, the Symphony No. 2, is a harder nut to crack. It comes from much earlier in Lutosławski’s career after he had heard John Cage’s Concert of Piano and Orchestra and his experiments with “chance” elements. Lutosławski did not adopt this practice, but developed his own “limited aleatory” technique where he allowed the musicians to repeat phrases ad libitum within a controlled context. He pretty much abandoned this practice in his Piano Concerto, except for minimal use in the orchestral part of the last movement. Unlike the Symphony No.3, which grabs the listener from the beginning and keeps one riveted to the end, its predecessor takes some tough listening to understand how the symphony works. It is in two movements, “Hésitant” and “Direct”. I can appreciate the first movement with its clashing brass fanfares and the solo oboe part that is later recalled in the Double Concerto for Oboe and Harp, but I can’t say I really “get” the second movement having listened to it numerous times. The strings play a more important part there and the composer’s aleatory technique is present before the music becomes violent and then dies away. Orchestration-wise the symphony is as colourful as the concerto, and the Berlin Philharmonic appears to relish it under Rattle’s expert guidance. Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic remain competitive on the same disc with Crossley’s account of the Piano Concerto.
Herein lies the rub with this new CD. Fifty-two minutes of music these days, even in performances as superb as these, is very short measure. Salonen’s disc not only contains the two works here, but also includes a wonderful performance by Dawn Upshaw of the delectable Chantefleurs et Chantefables and the brief fanfare that Lutosławski composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Andsnes’ CD includes other contemporary piano works by Bent Sřrensen, György Kurtäg and Marc-André Dalbavie, totalling some 76 minutes of music. It’s not as if the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive, as available through their Digital Concert Hall, didn’t contain other Lutosławski works under Rattle that could have been included. The Second Symphony performance here is listed as “live” and presumably the same as that on the Digital Concert Hall, while the Piano Concerto apparently was not performed before an audience. Although there wouldn’t have been enough room to include the Third Symphony, the Double Concerto would have fitted nicely. Perhaps DG will give us those works along with more Lutosławski on a future release. In the meantime, I have nothing but praise for this new benchmark recording of the Piano Concerto and I will continue to “work on” the Symphony No. 2.