Museums of contemporary art are sparsely populated areas. I remember visiting the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo in Rome several years ago. I showed up on a workday in the morning, and I had the museum all for myself. I was alone. Walking through the expositions felt like walking through a cathedral. Silence all around me. A surreal solemnity. Strange artifacts stared at me and I stared back without understanding what I saw. Some works triggered a meditative moment, others made me just shake my head.
Listening to Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra made me feel something similar. Silence penetrated by occasional sounds. Strange notes and harmonies. The solemnity of pacing through an empty cathedral. At moments I feel lost, at others I stand in awe before the composer’s astonishing ideas. It is a true piece of art, but it needs to be contemplated in a calm atmosphere, from different angles, at different times. Only then will it reveal some of its meanings. Does that sound metaphysical? Contemporary art is metaphysical.
The concerto was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. It was first performed at the festival on August 19, 1988 by the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the Austrian Radio Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Lutoslawski dedicated the piece to Zimerman. One year later, it was recorded by Zimerman and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle. In the liner notes accompanying the recording, Klaus Oehl says that hearing in 1960 John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra on the Polish radio proved to be a seminal experience for Lutoslawski. “Those few minutes were to change my life decisively […] While listening to it, I suddenly realized that I could compose music differently from that of my past.”
Picking up Cage’s idea of music that operates using random processes, Lutoslawski first developed his own compositional principle of ad libitum playing, says Oehl. The composer fully put to use the process he calls “limited aleatoricism” in his second symphony, written between 1965 and 1967. In the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra he drew on the ideas that he had first sketched out more than fifty years earlier.
The concerto is cast in four movements played without a pause. Witold Maliszewski, Lutoslawski’s teacher and an expert on musical forms, would have characterized them as “introductory”, “transitory”, “responding” and “concluding”. They can be delineated by their tempo:
1. Dotted Quarter Note = 110 – Quarter Note ” 70
2. Presto – Poco meno mosso – Lento
3. Eighth Note ca. 85 – Largo
4. Quarter Note = 84 – Presto
Andrew Clements, music critic of “The Guardian” is of the opinion that the concerto ranks alongside Gyorgy Ligeti’s “utterly different concerto as the most important for piano and orchestra since [Bela] Bartok.” Enjoy the meditation.
© Charles Thibo