The way to a piano concerto has been a long one for Witold Lutoslawski. More than a decade ago Krystian Zimerman requested a concerto from the 77-year-old Polish composer and conductor, but Lutoslawski felt there was nothing new for the piano to say after the flowering of the repertory in the 19th Century.
“I think that the possibility of such a concerto came from a strange marriage of my personal sound language with pianism that is clearly an allusion to the great pianism of the 19th Century,” Lutoslawski now says.
Commissioned by the Salzburg Festival for Zimerman, his Piano Concerto had its premiere in Salzburg in 1988. Its first West Coast performances highlight four concerts by Lutoslawski and the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week.
Tonight, the Philharmonic New Music Group offers a Lutoslawski-designed program at the Japan America Theatre, featuring three of the composer’s chamber pieces, plus Karol Szymanowski’s 1922 song cycle “Slopiewnie” and the U.S. premiere of Pawel Szymanski’s “Appendix,” a mini-concerto for piccolo from 1983.
Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Lutoslawski conducts the Philharmonic at the Music Center in a program of his own works, listing the “Musique Funebre” and Symphony No. 3, as well as the Piano Concerto, with Zimerman the soloist.
Lutoslawski, considered the dean of Polish composers, is self-taught as a conductor. He now divides his time between studios in Warsaw and Oslo and conducting engagements.
“I never conduct anything but my works, simply because I have no time to learn other repertory. I used to be a pianist, so I have not only the notion of interpretation, but also the temperament,” Lutoslawski says.
“I never feel like a composer when I conduct, but rather an interpreter who just happens to know more about the works of a younger colleague than anybody else.”
The programs this week provide a representative short survey of the composer’s output. His mature works are usually considered to begin with the “Musique Funebre,” even though Lutoslawski was 46 when it was completed in 1958.
“After 1945 I wrote a lot of functional music--pieces for schools and small ensembles--which was needed in a country devasted by the war.
“At the same time I began working on the sound language for my possible future,” Lutoslawski says. “I began from scratch. Everything had to be rediscovered.”
Thus when “Musique Funebre"--dedicated to the memory of Bartok--appeared, many people were surprised by what seemed a radical shift in style. But the composer insists that it was simply the product of this parallel development.
“The piece was a result of my endeavors begun much earlier. I led a sort of double life, musically. ‘Musique Funebre’ was the beginning of a period in which I used the results of my work in the sound language, and I’ve never stopped.
“I began with harmony, and in the ‘60s my music was based on textures, as in the String Quartet (to be heard tonight). In recent decades I’ve spent a lot of time working on melodies, which is apparent in the Piano Concerto and Symphony,” Lutoslawski says.
His idiosyncratic approach to form is also clearly revealed in these works.
“I’ve always been very involved with large-scale closed forms, taking as a base my experience as a listener. I compose my big pieces basically in two movements. First an introduction to engage and intrigue the listener, but never satisfy him. It creates a pressure, an expectation of something more substantial, which the main movement then delivers.”
The String Quartet and Third Symphony are good examples of this, Lutoslawski says. The Piano Concerto is something different however. It is shaped in four uninterrupted movements.
“In this case, only partly did I use the principle of preparation and main movement. I think principles are very good when they can be broken,” he laughs.
The sound language of which Lutoslawski constantly speaks is highly developed, but not codified. Lutoslawski feels little confidence in teaching or establishing methods.
“I have never described my system, because I don’t need it myself,” he says dryly. “The work on creating a system would be possible, but I don’t want to waste time and write down all these rules--and there are many!”
If Lutoslawski feels no need to impress his own methods on the world, neither does the external world have much reflection in his music, he claims.
“I think the world in which we live doesn’t need to be expressed in art--it is too much with us as it is! The world in which we live while creating something is an ideal world, a dream world, the world of our wishes. Our duty is to give expression to this ideal world and make it accessible to everybody.”