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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Complete Piano Music
Piano sonata (1934) [30:13]
Bucolics (1952) [6:08]
Three Pieces for the Young (1953) [4:23]
A kiss of Roxane* (n.d.) [1:25]
Winter waltz* (1954) [2:52]
Folk melodies (1945) [12:19]
Two Études (1940-1) [5:11]
Invention* (n.d.) [1:14]
Invention (1968) [0:59]
An overheard melody, for piano four hands (1957) [2:04]
Miniature, for piano four hands (12953 [2:09]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
Virginia Rossetti (piano, four hand works)
*World premiere recordings
GRAND PIANO GP768 [69:45]

The piano was Lutosławski’s own instrument, but he composed little for it in his maturity, and most of his early works were lost during the Second World War, so that, with one exception, most of the pieces here are chippings from his workshop, while his main energies were directed elsewhere. So the title of Complete Piano Music should be understood as including the word ‘surviving’.

The exception is the piano sonata, much the longest work here and also the earliest. When I read that it was a student work my heart sank, having recently listened to Stravinsky’s early piano sonata, also a student work – and astonishingly devoid of interest. But I was happily surprised. Stravinsky repudiated his early sonata but Lutosławski played his frequently before the war, before deciding it was too indebted to Szymanowski and Ravel. Now a debt to Szymanowski and Ravel is something no piano fancier is going to regret, and indeed this work has a good deal of the colours of Ravel, including some near quotations, and something of the refinement of Szymanowski, though also more full-blooded writing turns up in the climaxes, in a manner closer to that of Rachmaninov. And none the worse for that. This work may well ramble and be a bit difficult to follow, but it is very attractive. Lutosławski didn’t publish it himself and the first edition, printed after his death, was apparently very inaccurate, even omitting whole passages. For this recording Giorgio Koukl has checked the manuscript at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle and gives what is listed as the first recording of the autograph score. (I have not ascertained whether the more recent edition is more faithful to the original.) We are lucky to have it.

The other surviving early works are the ‘Two Studies’, written during the German occupation of Poland. The first of these is fast and furious, with splintered textures and a good deal of aggression in the writing. The second opens with an impressive, rather Prokofievan, insistent movement but this is not kept up. There is an angry climax at the top of the piano.

After the war Lutosławski had to please the Soviet authorities, which he did by writing settings of folk songs and other simple pieces. There are two sets of folk song settings, the Folk Melodies of 1945 and the Bucolics of 1952. These are all miniatures, all very short, rather similar to Bartók’s teaching pieces in Mikrokosmos and worthy alternatives to them for piano students. Rather similar are the Three Pieces for the Young of 1953, though these are rather more ambitious and also more rewarding.

Some other works have come to light and receive their first recording here. ‘A kiss of Roxane’ evokes Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, whose eponymous hero is hopelessly in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane. ‘Winter Waltz’, rather in the manner of Rachmaninov is another early and unpublished work.

The two Inventions are later and more challenging. The first, also a first recording, is a complex Scriabinesque piece with notable rhythmic complexity. The second is brooding and obsessive. Both are impressive.

Finally, there are two tiny pieces for piano four hands, in which Koukl is joined by Virginia Rossetti (I am so glad that Koukl was not asked to play both parts, using overdubbing). ‘An Overheard Melody’ is a jolly little tune, straightforwardly harmonized, while Miniature is full of bell sounds like a carillon gone mad. Lutosławski’s ‘Paganini Variations’ for two pianos, the sole survivor of what was apparently an extensive two piano repertoire which the composer played with Andrzej Panufnik during the war, is not included.

Giorgio Koukl is working his way through neglected piano composers and offers forthright and confident performances, not devoid of subtlety when called for. I found the recording a little close and hard, though with good resonance, and had to tame it a bit. The booklet notes are helpful.

There are several other discs claiming to offer Lutosławski’s complete piano works, but neither Ewa Kupiec on Sony, Veronique Briel on Dux (review) nor Corinna Simon on C-Avi Music (review) have the works here listed as receiving their first recording. Nor do I know whether any of these have checked the autograph score of the piano sonata; Gloria Cheng in a mixed programme (Telarc CD80712) has done so and for this work is probably Koukl’s most serious rival. However, for those wanting as comprehensive a collection as we are likely to get, Koukl will prove very satisfactory.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Steve Arloff


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