• Lutosławski and Paganini

Yesterday, I wrote a CD note for the piano and orchestra version (1978) of Lutosławski’s tour-de-force for two pianos, Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941).  It took me back over twenty years to when I conducted this version with the composer Kevin Volans at the piano and the Queen’s University SO in Belfast.  We had enormous fun, especially with the syncopations, and the one slow variation, no.5, was magical in its simplicity.  We especially liked kicking in with the funky rhythms of variation 9.  What makes the orchestral version so rewarding is that Lutosławski repeats all but variations 10 and 11, swapping the solo and orchestral material for the repeat.  (In fact, Paganini repeated the last 8 bars of each variation as well as the first 4, so Lutosławski’s orchestral version comes closer in its proportions to Paganini’s.)  This way, he was able to give himself space to show off his scintillating orchestration and make this version a real match for the original.

It set me thinking about the circumstances in which Lutosławski composed his Variations.  Musical life was heavily circumscribed in Nazi-occupied Poland.  To scrape a living, Lutosławski and his fellow composer and pianist Andrzej Panufnik, then in their mid-late 20s, formed a piano duo and played in musical cafés.  The Poles have always been resilient, and in the darkest days of the Second World War anything that lightened the mood and distracted people from their grim circumstances was welcomed.  These cafés promoted all sorts of music, from complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas to popular song and the light-music arrangements made by Lutosławski and Panufnik.  They made over 200 such arrangements, but all were destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  Lutosławski luckily took the score of the Variations on a Theme of Paganini with him when he fled the city.  It whets the appetite for what we might have enjoyed had their arrangements survived and it’s a testament to the brilliance of their pianism.

A further thought on the aptness of Lutosławski’s take on Paganini’s Caprice no.24 for solo violin.  Unlike Brahms, Rachmaninov and others, Lutosławski sticks close to the structure and material of Paganini’s original.  In that sense it veers more towards being a modern realisation than a new composition.  But he brings such imagination, joy and panache to the task, adding textures, counterpoints and edgy harmonies.  It seems to me that, of all those composers who’ve been fascinated by Paganini’s theme and the virtuosity of this caprice, Lutosławski has come closest to its pyrotechnical spirit and yet made it his own.

I’m sharing a live recording (26 July) from this year’s Verbier Festival, where the pianists were Evgeny Kissin (I) and Martha Argerich (II).  I was astonished to realise that Argerich is the same age as the Variations.  Where other pianists sometimes push the tempos beyond their technique and mush the rhythms, the performance of Kissin and Argerich is crystal clear, glittering, with only a rushed cadence at the very end to mar a thrilling 5’.  The original uploader has provided the printed music, expertly synced, for those who want to see as well as hear what a technically challenging piece this is!


You can also watch the performance on <http://www.medici.tv/#!/verbier-festival-celebrates-2011>.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: