sound clip from Szymanowski Violin Concerto No 2
Szymanowski's music was only peripherally known even in mainstream music circles when I was a student. I certainly knew none of it. It became known to me in the following somewhat haphazard way and has since become a major feature of my repertoire.
Glowing from the triumph of bulldozing my way through Vieuxtemps Concerto no 2 (a fun piece for an 18 year old and very much the sort of thing that I was into) at a Trinity College of Music student's concert, I distinctly remember my encounter with Professor Katona the following day. I was praised reasonably fulsomely for my account of the Vieuxtemps (Prof Katona was not one to toss around positive comments too easily) which gave me a warmish glow - and even more excited when he announced I had a choice for my next concerto assignment. The options were put to me like this;
"You have a choice of concertos to study now - it can be the Glazunov or the Szymanowski first concerto..." "Oh I'd love to do the Glazunov," I blurted out, thinking of all those lovely sugary melodies, grateful virtuosic writing and my LP of Heifetz, which I'd practically worn out. "I'm afraid Mark already chose the Glazunov this morning - you'll do the Szymanowski"
And so, and pretty reluctantly at first it must be said, I entered the world of this extraordinary composer. It was a world which fairly soon had completely taken me over. I adored the concerto - its sensuality and deep emotional currents, its luxuriant orchestration and above all its ability to summon a whole realm of fantasy and live within it. In this regard the concerto does something that few works for the violin manage; that is for the violin to assume a distinct yet complete character within the piece. Perhaps the work's closest relations are those two fabulous orchestral violin solos "Scheherezade" by Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss's "Heldenleben". The whole piece sustains an unbroken narrative thread through 25 minutes or so of uninterrupted music.
As an eighteen year old, I began to wonder why this music did not have a bigger following. What I read told me that his music had changed quite radically in style more than once in his career; perhaps this has done him no favours as it makes his music difficult to pigeonhole. The first violin concerto is written in his second phase - impressionistic and much influenced by reading the ancient texts of, and travelling in North Africa, Sicily and Greece and Turkey.
The second concerto is in a vastly different style. Its relationship to the folk music of the Tatra mountain region of Poland is a profound one, and while the ecstatic and sensual elements are still present, the piece is more muscular, more lean. Colours are sharper and the violin writing has a pungent and earthy bite to it. Like the first concerto there is no break in the music. Perhaps this concerto's nearest cousins are the two Rhapsodies of Bartok, though Szymanowski's giant rhapsody achieves a larger and more symphonic synthesis of violin and orchestra.
There is however a tragic side to this piece, belied by the concerto's exuberant ending. It came to be associated with the death of his lifelong friend, the violinist Pawel Kochanski. It was for him that both concertos were written and he wrote the brilliant cadenzas for both works. Shortly after the premiere of the second concerto the exhausted Kochanski fell seriously ill and died. The concerto had been written and learnt for the premiere under great pressure - both composer and performer almost goading each other on under near impossible deadlines. In some way, it seems, Szymanowski blamed himself for his friend's collapse, and subsequently couldn't bear to hear the piece.
Just as tragic was Szymanowski's own decline in the years after the concerto's composition. Slipping ever more steadily into poverty and ill health his final years are as shameful a fact for the music world as are those of Bartok.
Apart from the two violin concertos Szymanowski composed a great deal for the violin. With the Maggini Quartet I have played the two String Quartets, and wherever possible, love to include the "Three Myths" and "Nocturne and Tarantella" in recital programmes.
I treasure all his music and will always try to persuade those whose knowledge of it is hazy, to open themselves to its powerful force.