Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto can be described as sumptuous, lush, exotic. It is said that the composer himself was inspired by the Polish poet Tadeusz Miciński, and specifically his poem Noc Majowa (A Night in May). Just by reading the poem one can immerse oneself in Szymanwoski’s night-vision music:
“All the birds pay tribute to me
for today I wed a goddess.
And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom
in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear,
burning in amorous conflagration.”
The form of the concerto is, rather unusually, cast in one movement: it moves away from the classical concerto into the realm of contemporary compositions. Thus, it is not surprising that it has been called a concerto-poem, much in the same fashion as a tone poem. Szymanowski’s exotic orchestration, often resembling oriental styles, guides the listener from what could be described as the chirpings of insects to erotic dialogues. While I have already described the concerto as lush, such is the economy and style the composer applies when using ornamental gestures, that the whole piece never sounds too opulent or heavy. On the contrary, it is often ethereal, magical even. It is mainly the combination of the orchestral colouring along with the high registers of the violin (a characteristic in many of the composer’s works) that produce a lavish soundworld.
Since discovering this concerto, I have attempted many times to find something similar. It seems, however, that Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto is unique. Of course, there are other composers with much more daring works, more virtuosic, surely more romantic or more contemporary. But it is this fact—that this composition is difficult to be placed somewhere between the late-romantic and the contemporary—that makes it so special. People say it reminds them of Debussy, others of Bartok or R. Strauss. The soundscape Szymanowski creates is so complex, elegant, colourful and cohesive that it literally makes up a genre of its own. Where else can you feel the nocturnal aura, smell the scent of night flowers, listen to the chirping of exotic birds, crickets and insects, be in love with nature and at the same time feel the erotic longing drawing you closer to a beloved, yet, unapproachable other? Romantic musings you could argue. Probably. However, I really wish we had more compositions in the same style. Or maybe it is better to have something so different from that era to stand out from the rest!
As for suggested recordings there are quite a few and while in most cases I would point to a couple of clear favourites that stand out, I’m afraid here I cannot. The reason being that nearly every single available recording is excellent. Rattle is considered to have made some authoritative recordings of all the major works, including this concerto. However, I have to admit to having a soft spot for Wit’s conducting (a Pole himself and an excellent conductor of Polish composers!) He has recorded the piece twice, and each recording is essential listening: one with Zimmerman and the Warsaw Philharmonic on Sony and one with the violinist Ilya Kaler and the Warshaw Philarmonic again, this time on Naxos. For a different, but sumptuous approach under the Vienna Philharmonic’s heart melting strings, I’d recommend the recording by Boulez and the very precise Tetzlaff on DG.
Janine Jansen performing the concerto
Featured Image: Claude Monet, Water-Lilies, 1914–1917, Toledo Museum of Art