Years ago it seemed that Szymanowski's music was the property of Polish
musicians, as little of it ventured outside Poland. As to the violin
concertos, it was Thomas Zehetmair with Simon Rattle and the City of
Birmingham Symphony who broke the mold for many of us. Their EMI recording
still holds a special place in the recorded literature of the composer. Yet
here we have a terrific violinist accompanied by an equally superb orchestra
and conductor who easily challenges that recording.
Szymanowski dedicated both of these concertos to Polish violinist Paul
Kochanski, who encouraged the composer to write them and championed them
until his death in 1933. He worked closely with Szymanowski on the violin
parts. The First Violin Concerto shows the influence of Debussy and early
Stravinsky in its exotic and rather impressionistic nature. Szymanowski
based the work on a poem by Tadeusz Miciński, "May Night", though without
any detailed musical programme. It has a nocturne-like atmosphere when it
begins and then grows into something dynamic and ecstatic before evaporating
, "as if with the muted voices of the night", so
described by Sebastian Strauss in his excellent notes to the CD. Where
Zehetmair and Rattle brought out the Debussian elements well in their
recording, Skride and Petrenko are bolder and more dynamic. Skride has a
vast range of colours in her violin tone and Petrenko provides very detailed
accompaniment. Both violinists are well integrated with their orchestral
counterparts, but with Skride and Petrenko the listener is more aware of the
intricate detail of the composition. Some of this is due to the clearer and
more present recording, but mostly it is the artists whose interpretative
focus is different. Both are valid approaches to the First Violin Concerto.
With Skride and Petrenko I am reminded of Stravinsky's Firebird, rather than
Debussy. That's not to say that the unique character of Szymanowski is in
the least slighted. The concertos represent the composer at his mature best.
It is interesting that stylistically he did not travel all that far sixteen
years later when he penned the Second Violin Concerto, even with its
allusions to the folk music of the Tatra Mountains.
There is a lesser difference of approach in the two accounts of the Violin
Concerto No. 2, where the folk elements are made apparent, even if the
orchestral texture is dense at times. Nonetheless, Skride and Petrenko are
that much bolder and the recording allows one to appreciate the orchestral
part better than with Rattle. The Oslo Philharmonic plays wonderfully
throughout both works and I continue to be hugely impressed with Vasily
Petrenko whose selection of repertoire continues to bring out his strengths.
I am a real fan of his Shostakovich and it is now hoped he will perform more
Szymanowski. As for Baiba Skride, her recording two years earlier of the
Frank Martin and Stravinsky violin concertos quickly has become one of my
favourite discs - especially for the Martin work which had not received its
due before that. I find it amazing how quietly Skride creeps in at the
beginning of Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto with a silvery tone and
then can turn this into something intense and lustrous later in that work
and throughout the Second Violin Concerto. With her fabulous technique I am
sure we will be hearing a great deal from her as she records pieces that
demand to be heard, rather than doing only the warhorses on which so many
violinists today have earned their reputations. Patricia Kopatchinskaja
is another such violinist who
has demonstrated that doing modern repertoire well enhances one's reputation
more than just playing it safe with the chestnuts of the past.
If the two concertos on this disc were not enough to convince me of her
extraordinary talent, Baiba Skride supplements these with the perfect
"filler", the Myths for violin and piano. Here she is accompanied on the
piano by her sister, Lauma. The three Myths with their titles of "The
Fountain of Arethusa", "Narcissus" and "Dryads and Pan" respectively, are
clearly impressionistic with piano writing that recalls Debussy in its
delicate filigree. Szymanowski composed them the year before the Violin
Concerto No. 1 and some of the violin writing, in particular the high
register of the opening of "The Fountain of Arethusa", can also be found in
the violin concerto. The harmony in the second Myth, "Narcissus", on the
other hand, is also reminiscent of Ravel. The last of the Myths, "Dryads and
Pan", is virtuosic and whimsical and sounds less like Debussy or Ravel -
more like the Szymanowski of the concertos. I compared this recording with
another favourite, the reissued disc of these works with Isabelle Faust and
Ewa Kupiec on Harmonia Mundi that I reviewed
here last year. Where Faust and Kupiec are
more direct in their interpretation, the Skrides show greater tonal and
dynamic variety. Their tempi are also varied more than the formers. There is
not all that much in it and I would not want to be without either account.
The deciding factor comes down to the particular couplings. Faust and Kupiec
contribute first-rate performances of Janaček's Violin Sonata and
Lutosławski's Partita and Subito on their CD.
For an all-Szymanowski programme, this current one will be hard to equal.
Indeed, the artists have set a new standard for the violin concertos. Lauma
Skride is as impressive in her role as her sister is, so a recording of
Szymanowski's piano music would be welcome from her at any time.
I have reviewed many superb recordings this year, but none finer than this
one. It should appear high on my list of Recordings of the Year.