Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos 

December 19, 2017: Alessio Bax, piano; Lucille Chung, piano

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Witold Lutosławski, along with Krzysztof Penderecki, led Polish composers in a great renaissance, bringing recognition to Polish music that had been lacking since the days of Chopin. Lutosławski had concurrently studied composition at the Warsaw Conservatory and mathematics at the University of Warsaw. In the 1960s he became internationally known as a conductor of his own works and taught and lectured on composition in Europe and the United States.

Lutosławski’s style went through many stages—a folk music stage greatly influenced by Bartók, a twelve-tone phase, and a period in which he developed his own system that permitted him, he said, “to move within the scope of twelve tones, outside both the tonal system and conventional dodecaphony.” In the 1960s he became interested in aleatory techniques to enhance textural effects, not, as he said, “to free myself of part of my responsibility for the work by transferring it to the players,” but to achieve “a particular result in sound.” His exceptional attention to structure and detail and his careful working methods resulted in long periods of revision and polishing for most works—ten years in the case of the Third Symphony. His list of works, therefore, is relatively short, but each is of consistently high quality.

During the Second World War, Lutosławski played piano in cafés (kawiarnie) in order to make a living and as a means of public expression. He sometimes accompanied other artists and often performed together with composer and conductor Andrzej Panufnik in a duo piano team. Their concerts included light and serious music of all periods from Bach to Debussy, in arrangements on which he and Panufnik had collaborated. More than 200 of these arrangements were destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising, but one survived, the Wariacje na temat Paganiniego (Variations on a theme of Paganini), an arrangement by Lutosławski alone, which he published after the war. As in all their arrangements, one part was harder than the other, because Lutosławski was a better pianist than Panufnik; Lutosławski took the first piano part in the present arrangement.

The Paganini theme is the famous one from the twenty-fourth Caprice for solo violin, which Paganini himself was the first to vary, and which has since attracted numerous composers, such as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Blacher, Ginastera, Rochberg, and popular composers John Dankworth and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But where the most famous of these works—the Brahms and Rachmaninoff—present original variations on the theme, Lutosławski’s follows Paganini’s model closely; that is, Lutosławski “transcribed” Paganini’s variations.

That is not to say Lutosławski’s Variations sound like products of the Romantic era—instead he used great imagination and twentieth-century vocabulary in transferring the violinistic passages to two pianos. The rapid string crossings in the second variation, for example, become rapidly alternating chromatically neighboring chords, and the thirds and tenths in the sixth variation are treated in canon and inversion with widely spaced triads in the first piano and octaves a third apart in the second piano.

Though Lutosławski keeps the piece grounded in A minor, he introduces striking harmonic deviations, juxtapositions, and superimpositions. The first half of the second half of the theme, for example, begins in A major in the first piano while the second piano begins in E-flat, a tritone away. Lutosławski decided to trade Paganini’s arpeggiated conclusion for a brilliant, elaborate restatement of the theme—amounting to another variation—which is capped by a coda that increases in volume and speed to the end.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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