I have two regrets about this album of Polish music. The first is that Jennifer Pike has not included the unaccompanied piece by Grażyna Bacewicz that she played on Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4) to publicise the release. I think there would have been room for it. The second is the recording of the piano: there is more resonance around it than I would ideally like, and it is ever so slightly recessed in relation to the violin. When Chandos has taken the trouble to import the excellent Russian pianist-conductor Petr Limonov and give him a nice Steinway D, you would think the recording team – producer Rachel Smith and engineers Jonathan Cooper and (assistant) Cheryl Jessop – would have taken a little more care to allow him to be heard. As it is, I constantly find myself straining to catch the subtleties of his playing.
As she explained in that Woman’s Hour interview, Pike’s interest in Polish and other central European music is not a coincidence – her mother is Polish. And the Polish violin school is by no means negligible. Pike starts with the interesting and ear-tickling music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Though slightly isolated by his homosexuality in an age when it was frowned on, he had a group of devoted friends who, like him, aligned themselves with the Young Poland movement. They included the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, the violinist Paweł Kochański and three pianists, Artur Rubinstein and the brother and sister Heinrich ‘Harry’ and Natalia ‘Tala’ Neuhaus. Kochański (Russian-born) and Fitelberg (Latvian-born) were not originally from Poland, while Szymanowski would today be considered Ukrainian; and what with the fluidity of national boundaries in those times, Polish musicians looked east to Moscow and St Petersburg as much as they looked west to Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Heinrich Neuhaus threw in his lot with the Russians and Fitelberg always had a foot in that camp, even as he fought for Polish musical identity. Kochański, Rubinstein and Szymanowski decisively opted for the west. Szymanowski’s violin music was all written with Kochański’s refined sonority in mind and he would surely have recorded some of it if a virulent cancer had not taken him, aged forty-seven, in 1934.
The pieces here reflect to an extent the three phases of Szymanowski’s development: the Romance is from the first, when he was influenced by Richard Strauss and Max Reger; and the others belong to the more exotic second, when he was under the spell of Scriabin, French Impressionism and the Middle East, except that the Tarantella looks forward to his third phase, when he was absorbed in folk music. The Romance is very nicely played. The three Mythes, the Nocturne and the Kochański arrangement of Roxane’s aria from the opera King Roger all demand exceptional control of the violin’s high register: the composer seems to be demanding an almost white sound on the E-string, except that if it is too white, it tires the listener’s ear. I think Pike manages very well, although I continue to prefer the recording of Mythes by Kaja Danczowska and Krystian Zimerman (DG) to all others – they also give us an exceptional Chant de Roxane. Both in interpretation and in rhythmic sensitivity, Pike and Limonov are up with the best. If only he were slightly more forward in the balance! I like Pike’s characterisation of the rather un-Italian Tarantella that is paired with the Nocturne – even though Szymanowski had visited Italy, his dance turned out more Ukrainian, and that is how Pike plays it.
The next piece, Moszkowski’s Guitarre, sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the programme. Pike handles its mock-Spanish mood well enough – although her harmonics could be even better – but I am not sure why she bothered. Mieczysław Karłowicz’s Impromptu, new to me, is much more worthwhile. This composer, whose dates (1876-1909) tell a sad story, was one of the might-have-beens of Polish music: he was killed while climbing in the Tatras. Written in Berlin by the nineteen-year-old Karłowicz, the Impromptu was unknown until Tyrone Greive edited it for publication in 2002. Though hardly a major discovery, it proves to be well worth its exhumation – some passages could have been written by Elgar.
The final composer is Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880), who wore himself out touring as a violin virtuoso and died far too soon. Though completely Franco-Belgian in his violinistic training, he remained Polish in temperament and sensibility and wrote in such dance forms as the mazurka and the polonaise. Légende, from 1859, was written for his English wife just before their marriage. In song form, it is Wieniawski’s most haunting piece and is best heard with orchestra – there is a famous recording by David Oistrakh with the Boston SO under Charles Munch. Pike and Limonov play it very well, despite the disparity in balance, and Pike gives us some fine double-stopping in the passionate central section. They finish with the rather earlier Polonaise de concert, where Pike’s rhythm is thoroughly idiomatic, although she and Limonov stay within the confines of the delicate atmosphere of the salon. In his second volume of Wieniawski pieces (2L30), Piotr Janowski – who uses the alternative title Polonaise brillante – teases the rhythm more and gives us an authentic sniff of rosin; moreover his partner Wolfgang Plagge is allowed a grander effect in the passage for piano alone.
All in all, I think a slightly qualified recommendation for Pike’s recital is in order. Those who particularly follow this interesting British violinist will find her in good form, but better performances of some pieces can be found elsewhere.