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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No.1 Op.35 (1916) [25.20]
Violin Concerto No.2 Op.61 (1932-3) [20.19]
Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Violin Concerto Op.8 (1902) [27.17]
Tasmin Little (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gardner
rec. Watford Colosseum, Watford, 2017
Reviewed in surround

This coupling of composers is not new and is appropriate since both are Polish. Apart from that accident of birth they share very little: Karłowicz being, on the strength of this Violin Concerto, in the Tchaikovsky tradition and Szymanowski much more a man of the 20th century. His harmony and his filigree woodwind writing reminds one of Ravel and the richness of Debussy. Indeed the opening of the 1st Concerto even looks forward to Bartok and Messiaen. It was inspired by Miciński's poem May Night. The poet inspired more than just this work from Szymanowski; there are songs to his words and Miciński translated the poems used in Szymanowski’s Symphony No.3 The Song of the Night. The composer collaborated with the violinist Pawel Kochanski on both concertos and both works are dedicated to him. In the case of the 1st, Kochanski was unable to give the first performance but he did so for the 2nd. Such input helped the composer to produce spectacularly virtuoso works but it is a virtuosity at the service of musical inspiration not at the service of display. In many ways the 1st Concerto is a deeply introspective and even sad work. The 2nd is more upbeat but it is still far from the world of the standard romantic concerto. That world is where Karłowicz’s more conventional work lives. If you enjoy the concertos of Dvořák, Korngold and particularly Tchaikovsky, then Karłowicz’s concerto is for you. As the booklet note says, its neglect is unaccountable because it has everything those works have by way of excitement and good tunes. Perhaps, had he lived beyond the age of 32, we would have had much more reason to hear him in the regular repertoire; as it is he left a fairly small corpus of work and much of that was lost in WWII. What remains, several large symphonic poems and a symphony amongst it, might be the place to go after hearing this disc. The richness of, for example, Karłowicz’s Eternal Songs (Odwieczne Pieśni) Op.10, is more reminiscent of Suk and indeed Szymanowski himself than is the Violin Concerto.

Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 caught my musical imagination many years ago when I was a teenager. I learned it, and the 2nd, from Wanda Wilkomirska’s famous Polskie Nagrania recording with Witold Rowicki from the early 60s. That performance has a fire and intensity that places it in a class of its own. Any lover of these concerti simply has to hear that disc even if it means purchasing it second hand. Be warned, you will not be rewarded with a good recording. The sound is pretty poor. One of the huge advantages of Tasmin Little’s Chandos is the top class surround recording which never fails to impress. Not that she is alone in that, for Arabella Steinbacher has also got a marvellous surround SACD on Pentatone but only of the 1st Concerto. The Chandos allows one to hear the details, particularly of the less played 2nd Concerto, in such a way that it gains in stature. I do not think I have ever enjoyed this piece so much as here, possibly because its rhythmic and instrumental details are so clearly reproduced. The 2nd Concerto still does not match No.1 in my opinion, but both Szymanowski works do put Karłowicz somewhat in the shade. The recording in Watford Colosseum is nicely spacious though not as much so as the Pentatone for Steinbacher where a big space surrounds the performance with no loss of detail. On Chandos the BBC Symphony Orchestra weave an exotic background at the opening of the 1st Szymanowski, allowing Little’s high violin line to emerge effectively from the aural mist and, at the very end to fade to almost nothing.

Tasmin Little has herself recorded the Karłowicz before - on Hyperion CDA67389 - and it has been coupled with the 1st Szymanowski before. The pairing of both the first and second concertos is also fairly common. To get all three is unique, and results in a well filled disc which has no direct competition. There is an interesting interview with Tasmin Little about this recording here.

Dave Billinge
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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