Twenty-one years ago, I was lucky enough to meet the great Polish composer Witold Lutosławski for the first and only time. It was 1992 and I was collecting material for a planned book about Krystian Zimerman, for whom Lutosławski wrote his Piano Concerto; by then the pianist, also from Poland, was already a living legend, though still only in his thirties.
During a rehearsal break, we discussed the Concerto, its genesis and Lutosławski’s approach to writing for the piano. The interview has not previously been published. Now, though, it is Lutosławski’s centenary and Zimerman is coming back to London to play the concerto on 30 January – the perfect occasion to revisit the composer’s own words about his music and his soloist.
The piece had a lengthy gestation period. ‘In fact, I tried to write it twice before,’ Lutosławski explained. ‘The first time was after my studies. I completed piano studies as well as composition and I thought that I could possibly play the concerto myself.’ The outbreak of World War Two put an end to his plans.
‘After the war a close friend was the great pianist Witold Małcużyński. He wanted to have a piano concerto of mine. Again it failed: I couldn’t find the right way of writing. It was not a problem of pianists and pianism – as a pianist, for me the piano had no secrets. It was a question of purely musical problems.’
'Krystian himself did not ask me directly, but if he had said one word it would have been enough'
The enthusiasm of Zimerman – who had shot to fame after winning the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975, aged 18 – eventually brought Lutosławski back to the work nearly four decades later. ‘Of course the idea that Krystian would be the first performer was a great inspiration, especially as I had heard that he wanted very much to have a concerto from me. It was the director of the Holland Festival who convinced me to write a concerto and finally the Salzburg Festival commissioned it. Krystian himself did not ask me directly, but if he had said one word it would have been enough; I could certainly write a concerto for him.
‘I could speak about the playing of Krystian endlessly. He is a phenomenon – I think one of the greatest of the present day. Frankly I haven’t heard another pianist like him now. And it was delightful to work with him.’
Though their schedules made it difficult to meet, Lutosławski and Zimerman finally got together in London. ‘I had already written something and he looked it over,’ Lutosławski recounted. ‘There were no problems – after all, I believe that for him there is no difficulty. He can play everything. But of course,’ he added, ‘as a pianist, I wrote the piece rather pianistically. It’s very playable.’
Still, the concerto presents the soloist with tremendous challenges. Its four movements unfold without a break, culminating in a type of chaconne, which Lutosławski described as ‘the most musically developed’ section. ‘Its theme is not in the Baroque form of long chords, but of short notes with many rests, which enabled me to compose it as a dialogue between repeated figures for the orchestra and always something new on the piano. It’s connected with the chain form [two structurally independent strands of material] that I developed in other pieces.
‘It is a strange marriage of two things: the sound line, which is entirely, so to speak, the kind of music I write; and the pianism, which is very traditional, following the 19th-century approach of Chopin, Liszt and Brahms. You can find traces of this in the concerto, but it is combined with sound lines that have nothing to do with 19th-century tradition.
‘I’m very against prepared piano, because instruments are works of art. The mechanism of a Steinway is a kind of miracle’
‘It was not a bad idea,’ he added, ‘because I think our period has not formed any pianism worth following. One person alone couldn’t form a new approach to the piano; the tradition of the 19th century was the result of the inspiration of quite a few great composers. Frankly I was not so interested in working on a new pianism, although I would love to – there were other things that mattered more.’ He had little time for the prepared piano of John Cage, for example: ‘I’m very against that, because instruments are works of art. The mechanism of a Steinway is a kind of miracle.’
At last the concerto was born in Salzburg: Zimerman gave the world premiere in August 1988, with Lutosławski himself conducting. ‘That was fantastic,’ Lutosławski smiled. ‘The only thing that was a little embarrassing was that he wanted absolutely to follow me. I said, “Please play as you play it and I’ll follow you.” He said, “No, I want to follow you because I know it’s your work.” So he insisted – which could be dangerous because one can forget that one is the leading person! And if we follow each other the results could have been disastrous. But that certainly didn’t happen. I always keep these concerts, and also the recording, in my memory as absolutely exceptional moments of my life.’
Krystian Zimerman performs Lutosławski's Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Royal Festival Hall on 30 January - part of the Woven Words festival commemorating the composer’s centenary.