SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35; Violin Concerto No. 2 in a minor, Op. 61; KARLOWICZ: Violin Concerto, Op. 8 – Tasmin Little, violin/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Edward Gardner – Chandos CHSA 5185, 73:18 (9/1/17) ****:

Tasmin Little embraces the early 20th Century Polish violin concerto tradition with an easy and articulate grace.

Just preceding the First World War, Karol Szymanowski traveled extensively around the Mediterranean, including Italy and North Africa, whose respective influence combined with the composer’s long admiration of French music, particularly of Debussy and Roussel. The Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916) testifies to the composer’s new-found lyricism and unified sense of form: in one, extended rondo movement, the music falls into five identifiable sections. The poem “May Night” by Tadeusz Micinski invokes many of the effects of the music: fireflies, nereids, fairies, and other ephemeral beings close to Shakespeare’s Queen Mab. Pan plays his pipes in the woodlands, and Szymanowski means to capture a delicate majesty in the richly fertile scoring of his concerto. The composer wrote the work with Paul Kochanski in mind, and that fine instrumentalist helped conceive the cadenza. A kind of ecstatic virtuosity marks Tasmin Little’s solo part, with its improvvisando elements, its high registers, and its wonderful interweaving with other instrumental voices, like the French horn in section four. The orchestral sheen often achieves a glowing incandescence, more as a halo for the various themes than a source of contention or dramatic conflict. The music resolves, dolcissimo, into cradle-song harmonics that waft to the glittery spaces beyond us.

Paul Kochanski became the motivator for the Second Violin Concerto (1932), a piece much favored by Henryk Szeryng. Unlike the delicate palette of the First Concerto, the relatively lean orchestral tissue for this muscular work comes from the Polish mountains and folk band music. The work connects two movements on each side of a cadenza. The music opens molto tranquillo with lulling clarinets, and the violin offers minor thirds. Alternately introspective and ostentatiously dancing, the music moves to a large tutti, to be followed by a central Andante sostenuto. Tasmin Little again plies her instrument into the upper regions, rife with double stops. A decisive chord introduces the first Allegramente, molto energico, a swirling, martial affair in 2/4 that features exotic winds and the snare drum. Drone effects add to the rural, modal, bucolic atmosphere.  A tranquil episode allows Little to commune with wind instruments, her melodic line often sailing in a gauzy haze. The mischievous element in Szymanowski returns, in pulsing rhythms, Tempo I: allegramenta animato – Poco piu tranquillo – Piu vivo that erupt in recollections of the music’s original theme, now having achieved a vibrant luster.

Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876-1937) remains famous for a cycle of six symphonic poems he created between 1904-1909, utilizing procedures he had gleaned from Richard Strauss. The 1903 Concerto casts a Romantic flair that proves reminiscent of Max Bruch, with an easy, ingratiating lyricism meant to pay homage to Karlowicz’s teacher Stanislaw Barcewicz, a former pupil of Tchaikovsky. The singing style embraces some warm passages for low flutes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons. That the Mendelssohn Concerto provided a strong model becomes clear in the placement of the first movement cadenza and the tying of the first movement to the Romanza: Andante by a long-held note. Tasmin Little intones a lovely melody on her low string prior to an ascent to the A string. An unsettling moment interrupts the flow to combine with the serene opening motif, punctuated by flutes and bucolic winds and horn. The Finale: Vivace assai presents a high-spirited dance movement that bears a few lyrical interruptions, then returns full force with references to the main theme of movement one.

Recorded 4-5 January 2017, the entire disc bespeaks a clarity and softness of patina—courtesy of Sound Engineer Ralph Couzens—that makes the three concertos instantly endearing.

—Gary Lemco