• LSO Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.1
A shorter version of this note was used for LSO performances of Violin Concerto no.1 in London, 29 April 2012; Paris, 1 May 2012; Brussels, 4 May 2012.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the death of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. He died of tuberculosis in Lausanne on the night of 28/29 March and was accorded two funerals, one in Warsaw and one in Kraków, where he was buried in the ‘Crypt of the Distinguished’ in St Stanisław’s Church alongside other Polish luminaries. Szymanowski had bitterly commented how he felt isolated from and neglected by Polish culture, although he rightly predicted that he would have a magnificent funeral.
Twenty years earlier, he had been isolated in a quite different way. He and his family had been cut off in their home in Ukraine by the events of the Great War and subsequently the Russian Revolution. Yet, remarkably, Szymanowski produced some of his most enduring masterpieces during 1914-18. His early works, particularly those for orchestra such as the Concert Overture and First and Second Symphonies, had drawn on current Austro-German sound-worlds, but in the years immediately preceding the Great War he had also travelled to the Mediterranean (Italy and North Africa). There he had soaked up not only its exotic atmosphere but also the many cross-currents of its ancient cultures. Coupled with his new-found love of contemporary French music, this experience sustained him through the dark months of the war and he produced over a dozen luminous compositions in rapid succession.
One of these was his First Violin Concerto (1916). This is no ordinary concerto. It is cast in a single span, lasting some 23-25 minutes. Rather than follow any familiar structural pattern, it weaves a fantasy-like web of associated themes in a way which defies conventional analysis. A strong influence may well have been a poem by his near-contemporary Tadeusz Miciński, whose poetry he had first set a decade earlier. The poem in question is ‘May Night’, a fantastical evocation of faeries, ephemerae and nereids, with ‘Pan playing his pipes in the oak wood’. It opens: ‘Donkeys in crowns settle on the grass – Fireflies kiss the wild rose – While death flickers over the pond And plays a wanton song’.
Szymanowski’s newly developed orchestral skill is evident from the outset, the darting instruments providing a wonderful backdrop for the soaring lyricism of the solo violin. Compared with his previous orchestral works, the orchestral palette is delicate, the musical ideas fleet of foot. This is a concerto not of conflict but of almost conspiratorial companionship, now mischievous and fast moving, now introverted, now impassioned.
A substantial reflective section occurs after the first proper orchestral tutti and features not only a part-stepwise, part-triadic melodic figure, which subsequently informs the Concerto’s major tuttis, but also an accompanied improvvisando for the soloist. Here, as elsewhere, the interplay between solo violin and solo orchestral instruments is intimate and recalls his chamber music of the time, such as ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’ from Myths for violin and piano. The moments of deepest intimacy come after the central climax, in a second reflective section led off by a repeated-note figure. This culminates in a dolcissimo lullaby motif in solo violin harmonics which also concludes the work.
The cadenza was written by Szymanowski’s friend, the Polish violinist Paweł Kochański, to whom the Concerto is dedicated. Kochański advised him on the violin writing both in this work and in the Second Concerto (1932-33). After the premiere – which did not take place until 1922 – Szymanowski wrote to Kochański: ‘It is my greatest triumph’. It is a testament to Szymanowski’s creative imagination that a work of such enchantment could have emerged at a time of such darkness.
© 2012 Adrian Thomas