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Witold Lutosławski

Publisher: Chester Music

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [Koncert na fortepian ] (1988)
Work Notes
Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and the whole territory of the former USSR, where the copyright is held by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM).
Chester Music Ltd (Polish Works)
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
27 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)

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Programme Note
Witold Lutosławski Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [Koncert na fortepian ] (1988)

My Piano Concerto consists of four movements which are played without any break, despite the fact that each of the movements has a clear ending. The first movement comprises four sections. In the first and third, the motifs presented are as if ‘nonchalant’, light, sometimes rather capricious, never over-serious. In contrast to the first and third, the second and fourth sections are filled with a broad ‘cantilena’, finally leading to the highpoint of the whole movement.

The second movement is a kind of ‘moto perpetuo’, a quick ‘chase’ by the piano against the background of the orchestra which ends by calmly subsiding in preparation for the third movement.

The third movement opens with a recitative for the piano alone, which then intones, also without the involvement of the orchestra, a singing ‘largo’ theme. The middle section, beginning with the entrance of the orchestra, contrasts against the first section with moments of a more sudden, dramatic character. The ‘cantilena’, without orchestral accompaniment, returns at the end of the movement.

The fourth movement, by its construction, alludes to the baroque form of the Chaconne. Its theme (always played by the orchestra) consists of short notes separated by rests and not (as with the traditional Chaconne) chords. This theme, repeated many times, provides only one layer of the musical discourse. Against this background the piano each time presents another episode. These two layers operate in the sense of ‘Chain-form’, i.e. the beginnings and endings of the piano episodes do not correspond with the beginnings and endings of the theme. They come together only once, towards the end of the work. The theme appears again for the last time in a shortened form (without rests) played by the whole orchestra without the piano. There follows a short piano recitative, ‘fortissimo’, against the background of the orchestra, and a short Coda ‘presto’ concludes the work.

Although used to a lesser degree than in other works of mine, the elements of ‘chance’ also appears in the Piano Concerto. It is, as always, entirely subordinated to principles of pitch organisation (harmony, melody etc). In an article published in 1969, in the journal ‘Melos’ (No 11), I endeavoured to explain how this is possible. The whole substance of my arguments need not be repeated here. However, there is one aspect to remember: there is no improvisation in my music. Everything which is to be played is notated in detail and should be realised exactly by the performers, the members of the ensemble. The only fundamental difference between ‘ad libitum’ sections (i.e. not conducted) and others written in the traditional manner (i.e. divided into beats of specified metre), is that in the former there is no common division of time for all performers. In other words, each performs his part as if playing alone and not coordinated with other performers. This gives quite specific results, ‘flexible’ textures of rich, capricious rhythms, impossible to achieve in any other way.

All that has been said applied to matters which are not of great importance compared to the central essence which the composer employs to achieve his goal. What then is this goal? To this question only music itself can provide the answer. Happily, it cannot be explained in words. If it were possible, if a musical work could be described precisely in words, then music as an art would be entirely unnecessary.

Witold Lutoslawski
August 1988
(translated by Charles Bodman Rae)

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. The first performance was given by Krystian Zimerman (piano) and the Austrian Radio Orchestra conducted by the composer on 19 August 1988 at the Festival.

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
    P. Paleczny, piano
    Antoni Wit
  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    K. Zimmerman, piano
    Witold Lutoslawski
    Deutsche Grammophon:
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
    D. Upshaw, soprano P. Crossley, piano
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Classical:
  • Ensemble
    Sinfonia of Leeds
    E. Hall, piano
    D. Greed
    Dean Clough:
  • Ensemble
    Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
    E. Kupiec, piano
    James Jordan
  • Accord:
  • Ensemble
    Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks
    Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
    Franz Welser-Möst
  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Louis Lortie (piano)
    Edward Gardner
  • Ensemble
    Berlin Philharmonic
    Krystian Zimerman
    Simon Rattle
    Deutsche Grammaphon:
His music is fastidiously neat too. There’s never a note out of place, even when Lutoslawski gives players the freedom to stray away from the conductor’s beat, and play the notes he’s given them in a joyous, uncoordinated melee. At a glance this looks a little like the anarchy of John Cage, but really the two composers couldn’t be more different. Cage gave the players freedom so that the result will be a surprise (to him as well as the audience). Lutoslawski did it to make a particular expressive effect, what he called a “rhythmic richness”. That meant he had to imagine every possible outcome of the freedoms he gave to the players – a colossal undertaking. Lutoslawski started to make sketches for a piano concerto in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1988 that he completed it … it was worth the wait.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph,07/08/2013
This is a beauty...
Anna Picard, The Independent,03/02/2013 of great tension, ingenuity, and sorrow...
Geoff Brown,,31/01/2013
The orchestra begins with wood-wind birdsong, to which the piano adds its voice as though it were another bird, contributing delicate figurations which become the leitmotiv. Gradually this sweet miasma turns sour, with choppy dissent breaking out between soloist and orchestra before the antagonists finally settle into a harmonious relationship, punctuated by nods towards the Romantic concerto tradition.
Michael Church, The Independent,31/01/2013
…one of the great works of Lutosławski's final years, the Piano Concerto he wrote six years before his death, for Krystian Zimerman in 1988 […] how imaginatively the work riffs on the traditional concerto model, and on the relationship between soloist and orchestra. They come to a confrontational climax in the slow third movement, after which they part ways in the passacaglia finale.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,31/01/2013
Edgy and lyrical by turns, [Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto] was written as late as 1987. Yet it incorporates many of the traditions of the nineteenth century piano repertoire. There are audible echoes of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ravel, and strong reminders of Lutoslawski’s compatriot Szymanowski in its uneasy exoticism.
John-Pierre Joyce, MusicOMH,13/05/2010
Here is another elegant enigma from Lutoslawski. The full-length, four-movement work for Krystian Zimerman, given its UK premiere at a well-attended Prom on Tuesday, engages and fascinates on many levels. Even the brilliant, delicate surfaces present a shifting spectrum of colour from a large orchestra with tantalizingly oblique virtuosity. …The mastery of the guiding hand is never in doubt, and the teasing half-familiarity of the materials adds piquancy to the exploration of music that does not let go of all its secrets on one hearing.
Robert Maycock, The Independent,03/08/1989
The scherzo is a particularly dazzling exposition of this aspect of the composer’s powers; it is no less present in the opening movement, where those earlier models are hinted at with a tantalizing obliqueness that enables Lutoslawski to expand in his own direction. Equally remarkable is the massively challenging piano writing; Lutoslawski inserts a traditional cadenza in the slow movement, and refreshingly treats the instrument as a Romantic composer would, exploiting its resonances rather that exaggerating its percussiveness.
Stephen Pettitt, The Times,02/08/1989
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