Although Lutoslawski was a concert pianist for five years of his career, he did not get around to writing a piano concerto until his last decade, a time when his music was mellowing. The work is in four continuous movements and features greater emphasis on melody and less on aleatoric counterpoint, an element found in many of his previous large compositions.
Cast in four sections, the opening panel serves as a sort of introduction, presenting the materials from which the succeeding movements spring. It begins in a haze of trills and swirls, an air of mystery and playfulness immediately evident. The piano enters delicately in the upper register, maintaining the ethereal mood. Tension gradually accrues, and the piano erupts, provoking the orchestra to violently spring to life just in time for the start of the second movement.
The driving second movement begins menacingly in the bass register, swirling upwards, taking on a Bartókian sort of rhythmic spring, both on the keyboard and then in the orchestra. The music mixes playfulness with a queasy sense of risk, of danger lurking around the corner. The latter moments are eerie as the music slowly fades. The composer's aleatoric contrapuntal procedures are in evidence more so in the second movement than in any other.
The third movement also begins on the piano, the music slowly taking shape, initially seeming to struggle to find its lyrical way in the long piano solo that dominates the first half. The orchestra finally enters, imparting a sense of tension with its softly trilling strings. The piano erupts in the latter half, drawing out hazy brass proclamations and anxious string activity. The music turns calm until the start of the finale.
The theme for this final movement is delivered throughout by the orchestra and is made up of short phrases filled out by rests. The music, then, has a sort of stop-and-start character in its creepy opening. The piano's material is derived from the main theme and is imaginatively integrated with the orchestra's music. The finale has a somewhat episodic character as tension builds and variants come and go. The piano writing is dazzling throughout and the presto ending is thrilling.