It is very good news indeed that such high-profile performers as Simon Rattle, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Krystian Zimerman have turned their attention to the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-94). That said, the Piano Concerto (1987) was written for Zimerman and he recorded it back then with the composer conducting, also for Deutsche Grammophon. He has not neglected it since and this present version is stunning.
What might be termed agitated birdsong opens the Concerto, the impressionistic piano part an animated mix within – so begins this most attractive, often-beguiling work that is in four movements, if indivisibly, and which, consciously or otherwise, can sometimes be related to Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, the rhetoric of Liszt and the romance of Rachmaninov. These are fleeting glimpses though for Lutosławski is very much his own man, if having come through his most avant-garde phase for something distilled yet always quintessential.
However, for all its first-time accessibility, the Piano Concerto also needs time to grow on the listener, and to discover its many wondrous ideas and colours: the glittering impetuosity, spectral scoring and dark beauty. For all the value of Zimerman’s previous version, this one with Rattle is a compelling and rewarding adventure, glorious, perceptive and dedicated music-making that has been vividly recorded, as delicate and as powerful as the score demands, and with a realistic balance that gives the orchestra as much billing as the piano – and with such a master orchestral painter as Lutosławski then such focussed reproduction is a necessity.
The radical Lutosławski can be heard in his Second Symphony (completed in 1967), a masterpiece that opens with carousing brass and interjectory percussion, music that – however ‘hesitant’ and ‘direct’ the composer has identified the two movements as respectively being – keeps alert and open-minded listeners on their toes, first with a mosaic of seemingly disconnected episodes that are, each one, unfailingly intriguing and also full of fascinating textures. There is a sense of mounting tension, of speculation becoming proposition, and the following-on second movement, a rich cluster of incident, not least for strings and brass, takes the music to a flare-up of explosive activity – frenzy (and for a few bars reminding of the final climax of Elliott Carter’s astounding, and contemporaneous, Concerto for Orchestra) – before freezing and descending to uncertainty – maybe at the time of composition this mirrored the composer pushing expressive boundaries yet also wondering how far he should go and, indeed, where?
Fifty years on, Lutosławski’s Second Symphony, however anarchic it may appear to be, not only makes for riveting listening but also makes musical sense, coming across as a genuine Symphony, one the composer knew he had built to last – as Simon Rattle and the Berliners fabulously demonstrate.