Krystian Zimerman, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, London


Given that they’ve slapped their ‘Rest Is Noise’ logo on half the coming year’s output, it’s strange the Southbank Centre should have left it off their series celebrating the centenary of Witold Lutoslawski.

This is presumably because, despite his pivotal importance, this great Polish composer only makes a fleeting appearance in Alex Ross’s magpie survey. By creating works which became instant modernist milestones while still remaining vividly accessible, Lutoslawski pulled off a remarkable trick, and he scrupulously kept his distance from the avant-garde, wisely observing that nothing dated faster than ‘novelty’.

His heroes were Haydn and Beethoven, Debussy and Schoenberg; he neither rejected the Classical and Romantic tradition, nor did he tamely re-create it; he employed Cagean games of chance, but he controlled their context.

Both the Lutoslawski works in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first programme were built on what the composer called his ‘chain’ principle, by which two or more strands of music were in effect braided together. But before this device was reached in Musique funebre – the first Lutoslawski work to attract international attention – one heard an anguished movement pursuing the contrapuntal course of a tritone (the ‘devil’s interval’) which Salonen and the Philharmonia delineated with fastidious precision.

And if this elegy for Bartok dwelt firmly in the Hungarian composer’s sound-world, the main work in the programme used that sound-world as a springboard into uncharted and magical realms.

Half a century in gestation, Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto was written for his compatriot Krystian Zimerman, and nobody ‘owns’ it as Zimerman does, principally because it demands that superfine calibration of sound which is his speciality.

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.

The ghosts of Chopin and Ravel hover, and there’s a kind of cadenza, but as Zimerman followed its ruminative ribbon of thought – spreading an intense stillness through the auditorium – one realised how radical Lutoslawski’s reworking of convention actually was. I could not have wished for a more perfect orchestral backdrop for Zimerman’s diaphanous sound: acknowledging his ovation, he held up the score and kissed it.