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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op.35 (1916) [25:20]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in A minor, Op.61 (1932-33) [20:19]
Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Violin Concerto in A major, Op.8 (1902) [27:17]
Tasmin Little (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum
Reviewed in stereo.

When I first managed to hear the Szymanowski violin concertos, it was on a Polish label imported with some difficulty. They were then on the outer fringes of the repertoire. They have rightly moved much nearer to the centre, both because of their intrinsic merit and also because of the advocacy of numerous violinists. So it is a pleasure to hear Tasmin Little tackle them.

The first concerto dates from the heyday of Szymanowski’s impressionist period, of which it is one of the finest examples, along with the third symphony, the opera King Roger and some chamber works. The idiom derives from Debussy, and is modified and enriched by Russian orientalism, notably Stravinsky’s Firebird, as well as Scriabin. It is a wonderful, shimmering, dazzlingly beautiful work, and one of the great violin concertos of the twentieth century. It is composed in a single movement but Chandos have helpfully provided five cue points. The structure with groups of themes which recur may seem rhapsodic but in fact is carefully designed, as Jim Sansom once explained.

The second concerto is a harder-edged work from the time of the Stabat Mater and the ballet Harnasie. Szymanowski had moved, as Bartók did earlier, from a more impressionist idiom to one which incorporated elements of folk song, in his case from the Tatra mountains of his native Poland. Echoes of the earlier idiom come through occasionally but the work is altogether more vigorous rhythmically.

I had thought that Tasmin Little’s refulgent tone on her 1757 Guadagnini, might be too lush, for the first concerto in particular. It requires silver rather than gold. However, to my slight surprise and great pleasure, she hit exactly the right tone for the work. The violin part is very demanding, often very high-lying indeed—I noted an F in altissimo—and has every trick of the violinist's trade: multiple stops, harmonics, trills in octaves, and so on. And of course it must sound entirely spontaneous and natural, which it does here. Szymanowski was not himself a violinist—his instrument was the piano—but in both concertos he worked closely with his friend the violinist Paweł Kochański, to whom the first concerto is dedicated, who wrote its cadenza and who premiered the second.

The two concertos are rather short measure for a CD. We have as filler the concerto by Szymanowski’s compatriot Mieczysław Karłowicz, who might be better known if he had not died young. This is a late-romantic work, with echoes of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, much more conventional than the Szymanowski concertos and also, to my mind, much less interesting. Even so, Tasmin Little is a determined advocate—this is her second recording of the work—and it makes a reasonable coupling.

Edward Gardner has an excellent track record in Polish music, and in Szymanowski in particular. He conducts with great flair and sensitivity. I was able to catch all the colours in the first concerto, of which I have a score, and tiny details, for example in the celesta and harps, were audible when they needed to be. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has a history with the composer, dating back to the Andrew Davis years. The Watford Colosseum proves to be a suitable recording venue, and the engineers distinguish themselves. The sleeve note by Adrian Thomas, in three languages, is full of interesting details, though I must also recommend the late Christopher Palmer’s BBC Music Guide on Szymanowski, if you can get hold of it.

As I said, Szymanowski’s concertos are now popular, and there are many other recordings. Three I can recommend are those by Thomas Zehetmair with Simon Rattle, Kaja Danczowska with Kazimierz Kord, and Frank-Peter Zimmermann with Antoni Wit. There are many others. Tasmin Little can certainly take her place alongside these, and could be a first choice for the Szymanowskis. There are also some alternatives for the Karłowicz.

Stephen Barber

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Dave Billinge