Jennifer Pike Plays Polish Music

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Sonata, Op. 9. La Berceuse d’Attacho Enja. Trois Caprices de Paganini (Nos. 20, 21, 24). POLDOWSKI: Violin Sonata. Tango. BACEWICZ: Kaprys Polski / Jennifer Pike, vln; Petr Limonov, pno / Chandos CHAN 20189

This is Vol. 2 of Jennifer Pike’s discographical survey of Polish violin music. Vol. 1 didn’t interest me much because, although it included Szymanowski’s wonderful Mythes, it was mostly loaded with old-timey stuff that I find both tiresome and uninteresting. But this disc was fairly loaded with pieces by Szymanowski that I didn’t have in my collection, and in my book, anything Szymanowski wrote is worth hearing.

I was, however, a bit wary about approaching this disc since I did listen to her recording of Mythes and found it lacking in the right feeling, particularly the third piece, “Dryades and Pan.” You’re supposed to play this piece with the bow on the very edge of the strings to produce an eerie, otherworldly sound, but Pike plays these passages with a full, rich, beautiful tone—fine for Wienawski and those other old-timers, but not for this Szymanowski piece. I did manage to listen to a YouTube video of her playing live, however, and she gave much more feeling there, so I decided to give this disc a chance.

Like her recording of Mythes, Pike’s performance of the Szymanowski Violin Sonata completely misses the point of the music. She plays it with a rich tone and vibrato and a tremendous Romantic sweep with goopy phrasing and even some portamento, as if the music were by Rachmaninov or Brahms. This is the entirely wrong conception! Even in his earliest compositions, of which this is one, Szymanowski was much more about French impressionism, and that style of music – this style of music – calls for a leaner tone and much more color and expression in the playing. In other words, what Pike does with the music will win her awards at competitions where they’re looking for richness of tone and sweep, but she wouldn’t win a single Polish violin competition playing this way because they know how their music should go and this simply isn’t it. And I have another hot flash: the pianist isn’t very good at all. His playing is not only flaccid and lacking a strong rhythm—and believe me, Polish music is all about a strong rhythm—but he sounds about as interested as if he were playing some Sunday morning hymns in church for a bunch of white-haired old ladies. Even the last movement lacks bite, and Pike adds an exaggerated “swell” on the last note, as if to punctuate her point that this is Romantic music, by God, and she’s going to out-Romanticize everyone!

But – psst, don’t tell anyone, OK? – Pike is a British violinist and Chandos is a British label, and to the Brits anything THEIR artists do is solid gold and the best in the world. That’s why Simon Rattle’s sad, slow, emotionally disconnected conducting is still considered top-drawer in the UK. But just listen to the way violinist Miriam Kramer and pianist Nicholas Durcan play this sonata on Naxos for an idea of how it should really go.

With that being said, Pike’s style suited La Berceuse d’Attacho Enja, only because this is one of his more Romantic pieces, but even so, cut out the portamento, honey. Perhaps the most successful of her Szymanowski performances is that of his variations on three Caprices of Paganini though, again, her portamento ruins the effect.

I had never heard of composer Irène Poldowski before, so I looked her up online. It turns out that her name was really Régine Wieniawski, and that she was the daughter of the famous Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski. She published her first works under the name Irène Wienawska, but later chose the pseudonym of Poldowski. She also used the names Lade Dean Paul and Lady Irene Dean Paul or Lady Irene Poldowski Paul. Whatever the case, her violin sonata is ultra-Romantic, which is right up Pike’s alley as an interpreter, and generally predictable and uninteresting, but I did like her Tango which Pike plays very well. Pike also overly Romanticizes Grazyna Bacewicz’ Kaprys Polski.

In toto, then, a fairly disappointing disc of performances, but if you like this sort of style Jennifer Pike will satisfy you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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