Little and Gardner’s Exciting Szymanowski & Karłowicz

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. KARŁOWICZ: Violin Concerto, Op. 8 / Tasmin Little, violinist; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5185

Those who have followed my music blog regularly know that I’ve become extremely interested in, and fond of, the music of Karol Szymanowski over the past 10-11 years, and of course this includes his violin concertos. I have both of them played by an excellent fiddler, Ilya Kaler, with the Warsaw Philharmonic directed by Antoni Wit, but what I didn’t have, or had even heard before, was the violin concerto of one Mieczysław Karłowicz, who only lived 32 years (1876-1909). In comparing these new performances to the ones by Kaler and Wit, what struck me was how different the approaches of the conductors were while the approaches of the violinists were not too dissimilar.

Both Kaler and Little have phenomenal control of their instruments and, more importantly, the feeling or “soul” to play this music. The startling difference comes in the quicker, more emotionally direct and outgoing approach of Gardner in the orchestral portion of these scores. It’s like listening to Rodziński conduct the music (see my review of his performance of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Henryk Szeryng here), giving it more backbone and less wistfulness. Yes, it works, and I liked it very much, but I also like the greater mysticism of the Kaler-Wit performances. Hearing this recording is like listening to Toscanini conduct the Schubert Second Symphony. Gardner’s approach brings out an exciting, almost overheated feeling in the music, like listening to one of Scriabin’s symphonies, and of course Scriabin was one of Szymanowski’s principal influences. I was also greatly impressed by Gardner’s ability to bring out more clarity of detail in the first concerto than Wit, which made me sit up and take notice. I also liked the broadness and emotional directness of the theme in the midst of the last movement, played with uncommon passion.

The second concerto follows much the same pattern as the first: after an appropriately mysterious opening, Gardner, the orchestra, and soloist Little tear into the music as if their lives depended on it. There’s certainly something to be said for this approach, however, as it brings out the music’s structure with exceptional clarity. Little is especially fine playing the first-movement cadenza, which she approaches as if it were a complete violin fantasia. Gardner slams into the staccato chord introducing the second movement as if it were the hammer blow of fate. As I said, terribly exciting performances! Her spiccato in the last movement skitters with the elegance of a cat, and her timbre in the upper range never thins out or becomes wiry, no matter how high or sustained the tone.

The Karłowicz concerto, according to the liner notes, was written before his major tone poems and symphony and is a more lyrical and genial work. Like Szymanowski, three years his junior, he was passionately devoted to modern classical music and probably also a Strauss fan. Certainly, the concerto says as much. Not quite as innovative as Szymanowski, his concerto is nonetheless a fine piece of music, although it seems to lean on popular-sounding tunes to make its points. Once again Gardner and Little do their utmost to make the music sound exciting and bring out its structure, and in this case I think they succeed handsomely. Certainly, I could well imagine this score making little impression were it taken more slowly or played with less feeling. As the first movement progresses, you begin to appreciate Karłowicz’ aesthetic a little more, with notable and sometimes powerful new themes making their way into one’s ears, but by and large this score put me in mind of Hollywood movie music from the 1930s and ‘40s.

As for the cover of this CD, I absolutely loved Tasmin Little’s perky, friendly smile, so disingenuous and open, but could not figure out why Edward Gardner looked as if someone pushed him into the camera frame at the last second. Geez, Ed, couldn’t you at least have given us a little smile? At least like the Mona Lisa? Would it have killed you? Otherwise, this is a sterling release with an entirely new “take” on the Szymanowski works and a surprising window into the Karłowicz concerto.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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