LUTOSLAWSKI: Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 2 – Krystian Zimmerman, piano – Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle – DGG 479 4518, 52:22, ****:

For the first forty years of his life, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) lived in the chaos of two world wars and the Stalinism of Eastern Europe. His family fled to Russia at age two to avoid the Great War and three years later his father and brother were executed by Bolshevik soldiers. He survived by writing radio, film and theatre music. Polish folk songs infused his early works, the best known being the Concerto for Orchestra, whose popularity rivals Bartok’s work of the same name.

In 1960, inspired by a performance of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, he entered a new avante-garde compositional phase, which he called controlled aleatorism.  “It employs the element of chance for the purpose of rhythmic and expressive enrichment of the music without limiting in the least the full ability of the composer to determine the definitive form of the work,” the composer writes. Lutoslawski determined the overall architectural structure of the work and the music, but within designated sections, the players individually chose the tempo, number of repeats, lengths of the notes and silences. Lutoslawski compares it to a Calder mobile, where the performers constantly change how they play in response to their colleagues.

In the Symphony No. 2 (1965-67) Lutoslawski wrote “motivic building blocks which various musicians play without any prescribed beat.” What does this sound like?  The first section, “Hesitant” opens with a volley of cacophonous horns, not unlike hearing five cars honking at each other at one time. What follows is a restrained series of brief episodes of wind and percussion instruments that are notable for their color and diversity. The intellect is fascinated, but the emotions are not engaged. “Direct” is more dramatic, starting mysteriously and darkly in lower registers and then gradually rising to an orchestral climax. Episodes of swirling and buzzing strings, percussive chords, jazzy piano riffs, etc. create a colorful dissonant tapestry of fascinating sounds. The conclusion is an exciting race to the finish, with false endings that frustrate the emotions, but engage the mind. Yet, for me, the sense of disconnection of the sounds are not enough motivations for repeated listening. The recorded live performance must have been thrilling, but it’s not a work I will hear often.

The Piano Concerto of 1987 shows a composer whose music was mellowing. It combines the folk-like melodies of his earlier period with the modernism of his best avant-garde works. The opening section has a delicate playfulness that is ingratiating. The second movement has a darker pall, frisky but with a touch of warning that is theatrically potent. The third movement is an interlude, with a solo piano that is searching. The orchestra answers hesitatingly, a tense dialogue ensues, with a shocking orchestral chord that sends the piano off the stage quietly. The final movement is a dramatic and lyrical tour de force between piano and orchestra, reminiscent of the final movement of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, but with the pizazz of modernism that’s nothing less than thrilling. Pianist Krystian Zimmerman is nuanced and technically brilliant, and the recording is clear but resonant. This is a wonderful modern piano concerto that deserves more performances than it receives. Bravo!

—Robert Moon