• Szymanowski and Stravinsky (Decca, 1993)


Szymanowski and Stravinsky: Violin Concertos
Decca 0289 436 8372 2 (1993)
Chantal Juillet, Montréal Symphony Orchestra, cond. Charles Dutoit

• Stravinsky: Violin Concerto (1931)
• Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.1 (1916)
• Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.2 (1933)



Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was Poland’s most significant composer of the first half of this century.  His earliest works, such as the Concert Overture (1905) and the Second Symphony (1910), show the influence of Richard Strauss and Scriabin.  The music from the period of World War I, such as the Métopes for piano (1915) and the Third Symphony (1914-16), reveal not only Szymanowski’s newly-acquired love for Mediterranean and Near-Eastern myth and culture but also the persuasive influence of Debussy and Ravel.  The First Violin Concerto (1916) is equally bathed in this atmosphere.

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.1

Throughout his life, Szymanowski tussled with the opposing but inseparable figures of Dionysus and Apollo.  Here, Dionysus reigns.  The Concerto is a fantastic, impressionistic tone poem whose moods and motifs seem to ebb and flow at will but whose underlying structure is artfully created.  Szymanowski drew inspiration, not for the first time,  from a poem (May Night) by his near-contemporary, Tadeusz Miciński, who was fascinated by the occult and mysticism: ‘Donkeys in crowns settle on the grass – fireflies kiss the wild rose – while death flickers over the pond and plays a wanton song’.

The Concerto’s opening is a marvel of delicate movement, its colours and nuances utterly captivating.  From its first entry, the solo violin dominates the texture, but with subtlety and suggestion rather than any grandiose statement.  It soars above the orchestra in a state of unearthly ecstasy, by turns puckish and melancholic.  In a letter to the concertos dedicatee, Paweł Kochański (who was unable to give the first performance), Szymanowski described the Warsaw premiere in November 1922: ‘It is just wonderful on the full orchestra, surpassing all my expectations.  The sound is so enchanting that the most musical people here went absolutely crazy about it.  And imagine, Pawełeczku, the violin is constantly on top!  There are perhaps only three or four bars where it is covered by the orchestra!  It is my greatest triumph.’  Only at the very end, after Kochański’s cadenza, does the orchestra have anything like a real peroration (with one of the work’s more neo-romantic motifs), but this fades away as the solo violin recalls a particularly poignant idea and the concerto vanishes into thin air.

Szymanowski dedicated both of his Violin Concertos to Kochański, in recognition not only of their friendship but also because Kochański had collaborated with the composer beyond just writing the cadenzas.  They worked together on the early stages of the Second Violin Concerto in 1932 in Szymanowki’s villa in the Tatra mountains.  And it was important to Szymanowski that Kochański was this time able to give the premiere (in Warsaw, in October 1933), even though he was suffering from cancer and died three months later in New York.

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.2

Since the First Violin Concerto, Szymanowski’s music had moved on considerably.  Not only had he written his opera King Roger (1918-24); he had also embraced Polish folk traditions in works such as the Twenty Mazurkas for piano (1924-25) and the Stabat Mater (1925-26).  The sound-world of the Second Violin Concerto (1933) is shared by the ballet Harnasie (Mountain Robbers, 1923-31) and the Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra (1932).  Now the textures are grainy, earthy and lean, reflecting Szymanowski’s close links with the folk music traditions of the region around Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains.  He was especially fond of the music-making of highland bands, notably that headed by Bartek Obrochta.  And in many senses the Second Violin Concerto is a recreation of the melodies and textures of these string bands which characteristically contained two or three fiddles and a string bass.

Like the First Violin Concerto, the Second is cast in one movement, although the subdivisions here are a little more transparent.  The first section is separated from the finale by a substantial cadenza.  But Szymanowski’s skills enabled him to create long-breathed lyrical paragraphs either side of and across this central cadenza and to invest the basic folk motifs with the types of repetition, contrapuntal layering and ornamentation which he had heard so many times in the peasant houses and countryside about him.

Stravinsky: Violin Concerto

Szymanowski met his exact contemporary Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) on several occasions, and the Russian’s use of folk idioms made a strong impression on the Pole, no doubt influencing his stylistic development in the 1920s (in 1921, Szymanowski eulogised Stravinsky as being on a par with ‘Picasso, Matisse, Cendrars, Schoenberg and Marinetti’).  But the two composers were set on clearly distinctive paths and there are few connections between Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D (1931) and Szymanowski’s Second apart from their close chronological proximity and Stravinsky’s reliance on his soloist, the Polish-American Samuel Dushkin, who fulfilled just as crucial a compositional role as Kochański did for Szymanowski.

Whereas Szymanowski’s immediate influence in the Second Violin Concerto was his contemporary musical environment, Stravinsky’s Concerto was but the latest in a string of works harking back to the 18th century.  He once said: ‘The subtitles of my Concerto – Toccata, Aria, Capriccio – may suggest Bach, and so, in a superficial way, might the musical substance.  I am very fond of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, as the duet of the soloist with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement of my own Concerto may show.  But my Concerto employs other duet combinations too, and the texture is always more characteristic of chamber music than of orchestral music’ (Dialogues, 1961/82).  And Stravinsky might have added that his instrumentation goes hand in hand wth the laconic wit of his musical ideas.  The ironic subtlety of the back-references to an earlier period of Western musical history is epitomised by the use of the same chord to start each movement, perhaps a musical shorthand for the inverted comma.

There are four movements rather than the usual three: a lively Toccata, a moderately fast Aria I in D minor, followed by a slow Aria II in F sharp minor and the concluding Capriccio in D major.  Dotted amongst the 18th-century references are allusions to Stravinsky’s earlier composition involving a solo violin, The Soldier’s Tale, as if to emphasise that the apparent serenity of the Concerto is not that far removed from the devilish quality often ascribed to this instrument.

© 1993 Adrian Thomas


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