WORKS FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO BY POLISH COMPOSERS
MARTA SZLUBOWSKA, VIOLIN
SVETLANA BELSKY, PIANO
Karol Szymanowski - Mythes, Op. 30
Jan Popis wrote: “Karol Szymanowski’s music has unmistakably noble emotional aura and the absolutely masterly style in sound and form. The three poems on ancient subjects (Mythes Op. 30) stand along with the compositions of Debussy and Ravel as the examples of musical impressionism”. Karol Szymanowski, one of the greatest Polish composers of the 20th century, wrote this about the Mythes, Op. 30 (1915): “...three works for violin and piano, my favorite works, very original timbrally and technically, and apart from that it is also good music”. He also commented on the collaboration with Pawel Kochanski, a violin virtuoso and a close friend of Szymanowski: “Together with Pawełek we created in the Mythes a new style, a new form of expression in violin playing, something of epoch-making significance in that respect” he wrote to Kochański’s wife to whom the Mythes are dedicated. Szymanowski and Kochański premiered the Mythes in Humań in 1916.
Greatly influenced by musical currents existing in Europe at the turn of the century, Szymanowski quickly found his own voice, using his experience and knowledge of the great romantics and impressionists, and by adding his own rich harmonic and emotional language. Just like his famous 19th compatriot composer, Fryderyk Chopin, Szymanowski wrote for the piano, being a pianist himself, but by 1910 he was more and more drawn toward string instruments, especially the violin. His friendship and musical collaborations with an eminent violinist, Pawel Kochański had much to do with his interest in writing for violin. When writing his 2 Violin Concertos, transcriptions of his operas and many concert pieces for violin and piano, Szymanowski relied on Kochanski expertise in this genre.
A set of three pieces, entitled Mythes (or Mity) Op. 30, is one of Szymanowski’s greatest achievements. They are not only incredibly beautiful, but also quite unique for his time. No other composer has by that time written such substantial works in an impressionist style for violin and piano. Szymanowski was undoubtedly inspired here by the music of the two French impressionist composers, Debussy and Ravel.
First of the set of three Mythes is the “Fountain of Arethuse” based on the myth about the nymph Arethuse and her escape from the advances of the god Alpheius. The music is highly illustrative and dramatic. Piano begins by creating a shimmering tremolo imitating a spring on top of which violin comes in 8 bars later in a high register playing one of the most beautiful melodies that Szymanowski ever wrote. This is Arethuse singing.
From the perspective of the violinist, Arethuse is a great joy to play. It is not only challenging technically and musically, but also very emotional and expressive in nature. Szymanowski does not spare any sound effects that the violin can produce including various kinds of harmonics (very high, flute-like overtones), tremolos, portamentos (glissando or slide), trills, rapid arpeggios and scales, very dramatic dynamic changes, sul polticello (playing on the bridge to achieve a metallic sound effect), mute, cadenzas with rapid glissandi, tremolo in double notes, all of it to express best he could the changing forms of the spring Arethuse being chased and changing from a spring to a waterfall and back to a spring. It is a musical and emotional rollercoaster with wonderful colors explored in both instruments.
“Narcissus”, the second of the Mythes is a luscious and dreamy piece describing a young man who falls in love with his own reflection and, not being able to tear his eyes away from his face, dies. The movement is the most intimate of the three, it expresses falling in love. In the middle section marked Meno Mosso Szymanowski uses the two instruments in form of imitation creating the mirror effect. There are two beautiful climaxes in Narcissus that let the performers go to the great heights of expression and are very challenging for both performers with its large leaps and enormous chords.
“Dryads and Pan” is the third work in the set. It is the most differentiated of the Mythes. It is also the most colorful and wild, full of huge contrasts. It is based on the myth of the Greek god Pan who chases the wood nymphs. The music is almost hypnotic at times, especially when the violin plays alone the set of natural harmonics, imitating the sound of Pan’s flute (one of the nymphs has turned herself into a flute, which God Pan carries with him). The work comes to a close with an exceptional accumulation of unusual sounds such as quarter tones, double harmonics, left hand tremolos, two-note trills, glissandi, left hand and right hand pizzicati (plucking the strings of the violin).
The joy of playing the Mythes is unequalled by any other work for me. I find this music very magical and expressive. It is difficult, sometimes almost unplayable in its original form, but experiencing this music first hand is very special and well-worth the effort. It touches you in a different way that Romantic music does. It is in my opinion still very Romantic, since Szymanowski as a composer grew out the Romantic traditions of Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one can feel the passion with which Szymanowski writes. The unique sound colors and effects that create the “impressions” in the Mythes however, are just as important in this music.
Polish Caprice by Grażyna Bacewicz
Well-known critic, Stefan Kisielewski described Grażyna Bacewicz as “undoubtedly the most eminent woman composer in the world. No other woman composed so many musical works in so many different genres and of such high quality”, Witold Lutoslawski commented that “Grażyna Bacewicz was probably born with her musical wisdom”. These words ring so true when you consider how prolific and talented Bacewicz was as a composer. Born in Poland into a musical family, she studied violin, piano and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory receiving diplomas in violin and composition in 1932. She continued her studies in Paris, composition with Nadja Boulanger and violin with Andre Touret and Carl Flesch. Until 1952 she combined compositional and performance activities receiving many awards in both. Well-known violin virtuoso, Bacewicz wrote many works, large and small for the violin and other string instruments.
Bacewicz’s style is deeply neo-classical, but also drawn from the Polish folklore. Her favorite Polish dance, Oberek, seems to permeate many of her works. She wrote many works for strings including 7 violin concertos, 7 string quartets, 5 violin sonatas, 2 piano quintets, many pieces for violin ensembles, violin and piano as well as solo violin, viola and cello. Her music is quite challenging and often characterized by the rhythmic vitality and drive. There are also many melancholic and introspective elements in her music, however she always seems to return to that strong rhythmic element and great energy.
Polish Caprice for solo violin was written in 1949 and it is a short, but very exciting work that is full of many surprises, especially regarding the keys and rhythms. It begins with an Andante, a somewhat melancholic introduction which reminds me of one of the Polish national dances, Kujawiak in ¾ meter. Kujawiak is a slow dance in a minor key, which sometimes is followed by a quicker Mazurek or Oberek in a major key, also in ¾ meter. In the case of the Polish Caprice by Grażyna Bacewicz, the Allegro non troppo and then the Molto Allegro are mostly in 2/4, but ¾ meter (most commonly used meter for Polish national dances) appears from time to time, sort of peeking through to let us know that this music is in fact rooted in Polish folk dances. Since it is a caprice, a piece free in form and virtuosic in nature, we can’t be sure if Bacewicz meant to use Kujawiak or Oberek, but given her love for Polish folk music, especially Oberek, we can be sure she meant to include at least the character and feeling of them.
The Polish Caprice for me consists of three distinct parts, Andante- slow, melancholic introduction (Kujawiak-like), Allegro non troppo. Molto Allegro, which is a faster, fragmented dance in a major key, that is keeping us guessing regarding the pulse (it alternates between 2/4 and 3/4) and has in my opinion definite elements of Oberek dance, and the third part, where Bacewicz asks the performer to begin the main theme again a bit softer, but this time remaining in 2/4 meter until the end. The 2/4 meter makes it quite conducive (maybe a form of stretto) to accelerating the tempo. Bacewicz’s genius is in that in a 2 min. piece she is able to transform the simple Allegro folk theme rhythmically and tonally (4 different keys) in so many different ways, which keeps the interest of the listener until the very end. Being a violin virtuoso herself, Bacewicz was able to use many effective violin techniques that are not only impressive to the listener, but also a lot of fun to play. As we get closer to the end of Polish Caprice, the music gets more and more exciting with many rapid scales across the range of the violin, tremolo-like effects, double and triple stops, chords and harmonics ending this gem of a piece with a great flourish.