The violin concerti of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) are among the composer's best works. Neither is yet in the violin's standard repertoire. The violinist for these recordings is Ilya Kaler, an exceptional talent whose recordings are usually just as exceptional.
Written for Pawel Kochanski (1887-1934), the composer's close friend and Polish virtuoso, the concerti are performed far more in Europe than anywhere else in the world. Both are rhapsodic in form, cast in one continuous movement; the First Concerto (completed in 1916) benefits greatly from this format. It is very much like a ballet, and like most of Szymanowski's works for the violin, it has an unmistakable mythological connection. A silvery melodic line runs from beginning to end against a dark backdrop. The concerto is not technically difficult; musically, it is very difficult. The violinist must be a skilled tonalist to play the broad, lyrical melodies convincingly. Szymanowski's lush, often thick accompaniment makes the orchestra equal in the execution. The cadenza by Kochanski comes at the end of the work, a bit curious, but as the listener will hear, Szymanowski's placement of it was a magnificent choice, as it helps to slowly wind down the work to its elegant and quiet conclusion.
The Second Concerto (1933) is more direct and follows a well-marked groove. It is heard in concerts even less than its predecessor, which is a true shame and hopefully the passage of time will prove otherwise. It is a very, very Polish concerto. Completed less than 3 years before the composer's death, it was dedicated once again to Kochanski, who himself died shortly after it was completed. Kochanski's name is included prominently on the original score (verbatim: 'Violin Part In Collaboration With P. Kochanski'). The concerto's unsettled opening quickly gains momentum and plunges into the boisterous development of driving runs and double-stops. Then comes a slow lyrical section which bridges into a sonorous cadenza by Kochanski (he did far better with this cadenza than the one for the first concerto some 17 years earlier.) Another catapult brings us into the second movement, a whirlwind of a folk dance. This eventually settles into a long and infinitely calm melody which leads into the recapitulation and finale. The dance theme reappears and undergoes some quick and unexpected twists and turns and leads to a passionate recapitulation of the concerto's opening theme, followed by the heroic coda. And thankfully, Szymanowski did not end *this* concerto quietly.
As for Ilya Kaler's performances of the two works - they're mostly disappointing. After hearing his second-to-none readings of the Ysaye Solo Sonatas (also on Naxos label) recently, I was expecting far more. Kaler's take on the first concerto is uninteresting, and he glosses over many passages that require more time and attention. His phrasing is usually quick and abrupt, playing what's on the printed page and not more. The second concerto is a bit better but it lacks any degree of profundity. The miraculous coda that closes the concerto was, sadly, very sloppy and should have been re-taken. The orchestra suddenly starts rushing like crazy and overpowers Kaler, causing him to have to rush to catch up with them at one juncture (all faults of the conductor and the recording engineer.)
Conductor Antoni Wit, leading the Warsaw Philharmonic in this recording, has conducted for multiple Naxos recordings and while he is not outstanding, he's generally quite competent.
Now, for the big question mark... Included as the final number was "Nocturne and Tarantella", op. 28. This is a showpiece for violin and piano, and it is more frequently played than the two Concerti. When performed in recitals, it is often the last number on the program due to its high-spirited conclusion (Ravel's Tzigane is a cousin of this piece, and usually placed last for the same reason.) The version of the piece on this CD is a transcription for orchestra by composer Gregoire Fitelberg, a colleague of Szymanowski's. I'll sum it up in 2 words: it's terrible. When I bought the disc and looked at the cover and saw "Nocturne and Tarantelle", naturally I thought Ilya Kaler was going to be playing it, with an orchestral accompaniment instead of piano.
Needless to say, I don't recommend this disc.
The Szymanowski Concertos have been recorded a lot - much more than one might expect, given their infrequent live performances. I believe the best recording of the Szymanowski concerti was done in 1992 by Chantal Juillet and the Montreal Symphony with Dutoit. It's out of print, but you might be able to find it on here. Konstanty Kulka's recording is good also - I think the Naxos disc is a re-release, originally done in the 70s (and being Polish himself, Kulka has a better feel for the concerti I think.)