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ClassicsOnline Home » SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Nocturne and Tarantella
Karol Szymanowski was born in the Ukraine into a wealthy artistic family. Following the Russian Revolution the family returned to their native Poland, where Szymanowski found inspiration in the indigenous music. His lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1 was dedicated to his great friend, the violinist Pavel Kochański, and is remarkable for its clarity of texture. Inspired by Kochański’s visit to Poland in 1932, the Violin Concerto No. 2 was written towards the end of Szymanowski’s creative life. The two musicians worked together on the score, which shows influences of the music of the Polish mountain people. The intense and virtuosic Nocturne and Tarantella draws on the Impressionism of Debussy and early Stravinsky but also on Middle Eastern culture and folklore.
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
By Anthony Clarke
One of the strengths of Naxos has always been its willingness to feature instrumentalists and orchestras found far from the grazing-fields of the big classical labels such as EMI or Decca. Here we have a superb partnership of violinist Ilya Kaler with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Antoni Wit, and I doubt if a stronger partnership could be found to give a more persuasive account of these works…[The two violin concertos] are impressive works which need repeated listening to yield their full measure. Filling out the disc are the composer’s Nocturne and Tarantella Op. 28, written for violin and piano, but here presented in an orchestral arrangement by another hand, Grzegorz Fitelberg, and drawing on both Spanish and Italian folk traditions.
By David Denton
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 • Violin Concerto No.2, Op. 61 • Nocturne & Tarantella, Op. 28
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszówka in the Kiev District of the Ukraine in 1882, the son of a Polish landowner and of a mother of Swedish extraction, born Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate circle had a deep interest in the arts, a fact reflected in the subsequent careers of the five children of the marriage as musicians, poets or painters. His sister Stanislawa later became a singer and his brother Feliks a pianist. Szymanowski's early education was at home, since a leg injury at the age of four prevented him from attending school in the neighbouring town of Elisavetgrad (the modern Kirowograd), where, nevertheless, he had music lessons from a relative, Gustav Neuhaus, who had a school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continue his musical studies, taking lessons from the composer Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint and composition and from M. Zawirski in harmony.
The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin and his contemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by the repressive measures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt. Warsaw in 1901, however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time of Chopin, who had sought his musical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The century had seen Polish performers of the greatest distinction, particularly the violinists Lipinski and Wieniawski. The opera composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed only a local reputation, while his successors, in Szymanowski's esteem, occupied a still lower place. Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of the society in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a group of young musicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochański and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Rózycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established under the patronage of Prince Wladyslaw Lubomirski the Young Poland in Music group, for the publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg, by training a violinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directed the first concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski's Concert Overture was performed. He won later distinction as conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper and in work for the Russian impresario Diaghilev, before returning to direct the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and, from 1947, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochański's support was to prove invaluable, particularly in the composition of the first of Szymanowski's two violin concertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano. Rubinstein, who, like Kochański, made his later career in the United States of America, proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician of more conservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski's piano music, favouring especially the famous B flat minor Study, a work that owes much of its popularity to his advocacy.
The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had included performances of Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in B flat minor, played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enough received. Berlin, however, proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a similar programme in the same year. Szymanowski spent the following two years principally in Berlin and Leipzig, absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, of Reger and of Richard Strauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This period saw the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and given its first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequently withdrew the symphony and went so far as to destroy the 1907 piano trio, sensing what seemed to him the excessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a reflection of a predominant aspect of music of the time in Germany. The following years brought periods at home in the Ukraine and abroad. He wrote his Penthesilea, Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano solo derived from the Achilleis of the contemporary Polish painter and dramatist Stanislaw Wyspiánski, in Italy in 1908, and in 1910 completed a very different Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Opus 19, a work in which the influence of Skryabin is noticeable, as it is in the piano music of this period. The new symphony, played under Fitelberg in Warsaw in 1911, proved unacceptable to both audience and critics, but won acclaim in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, establishing the international importance of the composer. Szymanowski determined, after this experience, to live, at least for a time, in Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at the Staatsoper, and where he reached an agreement with Universal to publish his work.
Vienna proved less stimulating than Szymanowski had hoped, but the period changed to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through his experience of the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Diaghilev company in Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka. In March 1914 he left Vienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, returning through Rome, Paris and London, where he met Stravinsky. The war years he spent in musical isolation at home at Tymoszówka, turning his attention to a study of Greek civilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and to the culture of Islam, the last an extension of an interest aroused by translations of the poems of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, some of which he had set to music in 1911, and exemplified in the remarkable Symphony No. 3, completed in 1916, using poems by the 13th century Persian mystic and poet Mevlana, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi.
The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski's period of war-time seclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, to Elisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszówka was destroyed by the revolutionaries. In 1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the new republic. Kochański and Rubinstein prudently chose to settle in the United States, but Szymanowski determined to stay in his own country and to seek there a further source of inspiration, particularly in the more primitive aspects of indigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad, and in 1927 he rejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairo in favour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the Warsaw Conservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institution of which he remained rector until his resignation in 1932.
The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory and the Academy brought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of a conservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to his resignation. The remaining years of his life were not easy, without any regular source of income, and he therefore made more public appearances as a performer, writing the piano part of his Symphony No. 4 in 1932 to suit his own relatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the more taxing compositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouraged by the performance in Prague of his opera King Roger, a work that deals imaginatively with a struggle in medieval Sicily between Christianity and an Eastern Dionysian religion, a further example of his absorption of the essence of other cultures than his own, and of his reading of Euripides.
Szymanowski's final years were clouded by illness and he sought an alleviation of the effects of tuberculosis abroad in Davos, Grasse and Cannes, and finally in Lausanne, where he died on 29 March 1937. His last orchestral work was the second violin concerto, completed in 1933, followed by two Mazurkas for piano, written in the following year. The ballet Harnasie, inspired by the primtive folk-music of the people living in the Tatra mountains, was staged in Prague in 1935 and the following year, with much success, in Paris, with choreography by Serge Lifar. It became a popular part of Polish ballet repertoire after its first performance in Poznan in 1938, a year after the composer's death.
The first of Szymanowski's two violin concertos was completed in 1916 and is therefore contemporaneous with the monumental Third Symphony, to which it bears no particular resemblance. It was dedicated to the composer's friend Pavel Kochański, who performed it in St. Petersburg in 1917. The first performance, however, was given in Warsaw by Józef Oziminski, during the absence of Kochański in the United States of America. The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Emil Mlynarski.
In a letter to his friend Spiess Szymanowski wrote deprecatingly of the new little piece, which, while exploring new ground, at the same time returned to more traditional forms, the whole work being fantastic and unexpected. The novelty of this one movement concerto lies in the working of the melodic material and its clarity of texture. The soloist plays a lyrical part, often involving chromatic passages and arabesques. The effective cadenza was provided by Kochański. Behind the concerto lay a programme, although the composer declared that no knowledge of this was prerequisite to understanding. The ideas on which the concerto was based were derived from the poem May Night by Tadeusz Micinski.
The second violin concerto was written in 1932 and 1933 and comes near the end of Szymanowski's creative life. The immediate inspiration for the work was Kochański's visit to Poland in August 1932, and the two musicians worked together for some four weeks, particularly on the solo part, providing a sketch of the concerto, which was completed in the following year. The first performance was given on 6 October 1933 in Warsaw by Kochański with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. Like the first concerto it is in one movement, but here what are in effect two movements are linked by Kochański's cadenza. Essentially the music is characteristic of the third period of Szymanowski's creative life, influenced by indigenous musical traditions and particularly by the music of the mountain people, here absorbed into an idiom which is, nevertheless, the composer's own, in all its colour, lyricism and textural clarity.
The two-movement cycle Nocturne and Tarantella was written in 1915 for violin and piano and is here included in an orchestral version by Grzegorz Fitelberg. The first piece makes subtle use of Spanish folk tradition and allows the violinist room for virtuosity in the Neapolitan conclusion.
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