• Lutosławski: Complete Piano Music (ASV, 1998)


Lutosławski: The Complete Piano Music, Songs, Dance Preludes, Epitaph
ASV DCA 1046 (1998)
Ann Martin-Davis, with Susan Legg, Duncan Prescott, Melanie Ragge

• Two Studies (1941)
• Five Folk Melodies (1945)
• Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos (1943)
• Miniature for two pianos (1953)
• Five Songs (1957)
• Jedno słowo, jeden znak (1942-44)
• Wyszłabym ja (1950)
• Bucolics (1952)
• Dance Preludes (1954)
• Epitaph (1979)
• Muszelka (1952)
• Pioreczka (1953)
• Three Pieces for Young People (1953)

Chamber and vocal music spans the entire career of the Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-94).  The earliest surviving piece, recently rediscovered, is his Hasło uczniów (Student Password) (1931), a song he wrote while he was still a schoolboy.  His last completed piece, premiered after his death, was Subito (1992), for violin and piano.  In the 62 years separating these two compositions, Lutosławski concentrated on writing music for orchestra and it is for pieces such as his Concerto for Orchestra (1954), Funeral Music (1958), Livre (1968) and the Cello Concerto (1970) that he is best known.  He also wrote a string quartet, four symphonies (1947-1992) and several works for voice and orchestra.

Two Studies
Variations on a Theme of Paganini

Lutosławski’s works for one or two performers form two chronological groups (1941-57 and 1979-92) and it is the first of these which occupies most of this CD.  The earliest works are for piano: Two Studies and Variations on a Theme by Paganini, both dating from 1941.  The Two Studies for solo piano are virtuosic in the tradition of Chopin and Debussy, whose Etude op.10 no.1 and Gradus ad Parnassum may have served as models for the first study.  The figuration in the second study anticipates parts of the Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos, one of Lutosławski’s most famous compositions.  He wrote it to play with his fellow composer, Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91), at café concerts in Warsaw during the Second World War.  It is closely based on Paganini’s own variations on his much-borrowed Caprice no.24 for solo violin.  Lutosławski’s theme and twelve variations flash and sparkle, especially in the syncopations of Variations 7 and 9, with only the occasional respite (Variation 6) from the festive atmosphere.  (A much less well-known but delightful piece for two pianos, Miniature, was composed in 1953.)

Jeden słowo, jeden znak

If the Variations on a Theme of Paganini were intended to raise Polish spirits, so too were songs of the underground struggle against the Nazi occupation.  Lutosławski wrote five such songs (1942-44), the most peaceful of which is Jeden słowo, jeden znak (One Word, One Sign), recorded here for the first time.  It is a love song in the rhythm of a mazurka.  In the first verse, the singer (a mother?) asks a young girl why she ran after one of the (underground) soldiers.  The girl replies: “How could I resist when he looked at me with those clear and tender eyes?  One word, one sign, and I will follow him; if I lose him, my whole world will be destroyed”.  “But why did you throw flowers, and smile so sweetly, at the tall young man?  Why did you let him into your garden at dusk, when the lime tree is so fragrant?  Now he’s gone, and you are sad and tired with the endless waiting”.

Wyszłabym ja

After the war, Polish composers soon felt the heavy hand of Stalinist socialist realism on their shoulders.  One upshot was the pressure to write songs for the masses.  Lutosławski composed several in 1950, including Wyszłabym ja (I would marry).  Lutosławski turns to the mazurka again, rather than to the march-time more common in mass songs.  Here, the singer is undecided on her future spouse, so she consults a clover leaf on whether it is to be the bricklayer, weaver or turner.  In the end, she waits to see who else may turn up.

Three Pieces for Young People
Five Folk Melodies

During the post-war decade, Lutosławski wrote many pieces for amateur and young performers.  Among these are children’s songs, such as Muszelka (Little Shell, 1952) and Pioreczka (Little Feather, 1953), as well as the Three Pieces for Young People for piano (1953).  Many of these post-war pieces are based on Polish folksong.  In the early days, Lutosławski did this voluntarily in order to provide music after the devastation of the war.  Among these are his twelve Folk Melodies for piano (1945), whose tunes come from various regions of Poland.  The five selected here are nos. 6-10: ‘Od Sieradza płynie rzeka’ (A river flows from Sieradz), ‘Panie Michale’ (Master Michael), ‘W polu lipeńka’ (The Lime Tree in the Field), ‘Zalotny’ (Flirting) and ‘Gaik’ (The Grove).

Dance Preludes 

In the early 1950s, however, most composers incorporated folk influences so as to appear politically correct to the dogma of socialist realism.  Lutosławski was one of the few who rose above the pressure to produce compositions of quality, notably Bukoliki (Bucolics for piano (1952) and Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano (1954).  Both works use folk tunes: those in Bucolics are from the Kurpie region, while those in Dance Preludes are from northern Poland.  In both cases, Lutosławski uses the tunes as raw material for short pieces characterised by intriguing rhythmic and metric patterns.  He also teases the tunes harmonically, showing as much inventiveness with folk material as his great Hungarian model, Béla Bartók.

Five Songs

Dance Preludes was Lutosławski’s avowed “farewell to folklore”.  His next piece, Five Songs (1957), heralded the start of a new language, not least because a post-Stalin cultural thaw began in the mid-1950s and composers were able to compose as they wished, not at the State’s behest.  Although the texts of Five Songs by Kazimiera Iłłakowicz are from a collection called Children’s Rhymes, the music bears no relation to earlier children’s pieces.  Instead of a melodic impulse, Lutosławski revealed a stunningly original concept of harmony based on carefully-judged 12-note chords from which the melodic line is drawn.  Sometimes the impression is of ladders of notes, as in ‘Morze’ [Sea] and ‘Rycerze’ [Knights], sometimes of clone-like clusters, as in ‘Wiatr’ [Wind].  Each song has a distinctive presence, as if alive and committed to the new artistic freedom Lutosławski was experiencing.


The most recent piece in this selection is Epitaph for oboe and piano (1979). It also marks his return to small-scale chamber pieces and to melody after two decades of fascination with 12-note harmony. Epitaph was written at the request of the British oboist, Janet Craxton, in memory of her husband, the composer Alan Richardson.  The oboe’s plaintive melody is countered by flights of fancy with the piano before the two instruments reach a sense of final repose.

© 1998 Adrian Thomas


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