Although it comes third in the programme, it seems right to start with the Violin Concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909), something of a rarity and, I would say, given the best performance. The composer is often lumped in with the Young Poland group, to which Karol Szymanowski belonged, but it would be fairer to say that Karłowicz was a Late Romantic who foreshadowed them, even though he was only six years older than Szymanowski. His early death while climbing in the Tatra Mountains – the folk music of which influenced Vítězslav Novák as well as Szymanowski’s last phase – prevented our knowing which way he would jump as he developed. He wrote the Violin Concerto in 1902 for his violin teacher Stanisław Barcewicz, an important player who studied composition with Tchaikovsky and became a doughty exponent of his Concerto – you can hear him play the ‘Canzonetta’ on an early recording (Testament SBT2 1323).
The booklet note with this Chandos recording is pretty good but get off to a bad start with the Karłowicz, as far as I am concerned, by saying: “The concerto’s Tchaikovskian hue is evident from the beginning...”. I have known this work for some thirty or forty years and I have never once been reminded of Tchaikovsky. For one thing, Karłowicz’s technique of orchestration is quite different. He writes in the Romantic style favoured by Tchaikovsky, Bruch and Dvořák, but without their individuality of sound and melody, or any hint of folkiness. Having said that, his Violin Concerto is very beautiful and it would go down a treat at the Proms. Karłowicz does without a lengthy tutti at the start and, like Mendelssohn, he opts to position the cadenza before the recapitulation of the opening Allegro moderato and to link his first two movements.
Believe it or not, this is Tasmin Little second recording of the Karłowicz – the first one, which I have not heard, is in Hyperion’s Romantic Violin Concerto series. There is very little wrong with this latest performance. An evocative horn theme dominates the brief introduction, after which we hear some impressive fiddling from Little; and she is at her most confiding in the lovely second subject. She throws off the cadenza and is at her best for the rest of the movement. The ‘Romanza’ is very ... er ... Romantic and here Little’s G-string tone is rather clotted, but that is how she often plays, heart on sleeve. I prefer Kaja Danczowska, in her recording which was made under difficult circumstances back in 1978: she manages to convey just as much, while keeping the tone more under control. But that is really my sole complaint about Little. In the higher register she is lovely and there is beautiful playing from the woodwinds of the BBCSO in this movement. A fanfare announces the Finale, before the soloist spins off into the main theme. There are several contrasting episodes, especially a completely new flowing lyrical theme, and Karłowicz brings back the work’s opening motif just before the end. I think both Little and Edward Gardner have the measure of this enjoyable Concerto.
Little has been playing a certain amount of Szymanowski lately, and it was only a matter of time before she tackled the two Concertos on record. Both works were heavily influenced by the playing of the great violinist Paweł Kochański, a close friend of the composer and a fellow member of the Young Poland group, who provided the cadenzas. As most readers will remember, the Concertos are very different. The First dates from 1916, when Szymanowski had come out of his first phase, during which he was under the influence of Richard Strauss and Max Reger, and had become much more interested in Impressionism and mysticism. Kochański had a very slim, focused tone, as we can hear from his few recordings, and in the First Concerto Szymanowski gave the soloist many high-lying passages. Several generations of Polish violinists have grown up with this music and have become very adept at it – one thinks especially of Wanda Wilkomirska, Eugenia Uminska, Danczowska (a pupil of Uminska) and Konstanty Kulka. David Oistrakh also had the secret of the First Concerto but in the wrong hands it can lead to a lot of whistling tone, a sort of constant flautato, which can become a little trying to listen to.
It seems to me that Tasmin Little does pretty well. However, I do not feel that she is well served by the overall aesthetic of her recording. The orchestra under Gardner starts off in a very impressionistic, almost hesitant way, and Little herself comes across as rather halfhearted in those high lyrical passages. I often find myself in disagreement with the Chandos recording ethos, which gives me the back of the orchestra in great detail while I have to search aurally for the strings. If I go to a symphony concert, I hear a large body of strings through which the woodwinds, brass and percussion have to penetrate. My entire idea of an orchestra is based on the string sound. Others may disagree. To get back to Szymanowski’s First Concerto, all the Polish recordings – including that by the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (Sony Classical) – give me a very definite orchestra, including piano, and a much more confident soloist. Danczowska positively soars in comparison with Little, who is more extrovert in the faster passages and the cadenza but also lets her wide vibrato obtrude on occasion. She and Gardner end the Concerto rather whimsically: I am not sure if that was what Szymanowski intended, but it is quite fun to hear it that way.
The Second Concerto of 1932-33 is briefer than the First, at around twenty minutes, and is written in Szymanowski’s later folk-influenced style. Here Little is far more at home and I really have very little to say about her performance except that it is very well played. Even her vibrato seems to sit better with the music. Kochański was dying at the time of the work’s composition, and his wife always blamed Szymanowski for imposing added strain on him, but I feel sure the great violinist was pleased to be able to give the première before he succumbed to cancer. The music shows no sign of all these tensions and I always enjoy hearing it. Amusingly, Danczowska reveals in her candid notes to the Polish Radio set of her major recordings that when she was asked to record both Concertos in 1996, she had never performed the Second Concerto, although she knew the music well from teaching it to her pupils. She has never played it again, yet her performance is splendid and I recommend her versions of both works, along with Zimmermann’s and Kulka’s – I know his famous earlier recordings.
Karłowicz’s Concerto seems to be reviving a little, judging by several relatively recent versions. Here again Kulka has made two recordings, of which I know the earlier. Danczowska’s interpretation is in the Polish Radio box. I shall keep the Chandos disc for Tasmin Little’s Karłowicz and her Second Szymanowski, but I feel less at ease with her First Concerto.