As part of her prize for winning the Windsor Festival International Strings Competition in 2015, South Korean violinist Jiyoon Lee makes her debut recording on Champs Hill Records with duo partner Henry Kramer in a recital of Stravinsky, Wieniawski, Bartok, Szymanowski and Ravel.
Winning the David Oistrakh competition in 2013, Jiyoon Lee subsequently won prizes in the Indianapolis, Queen Elizabeth and Carl Nielsen competitions, in addition to Windsor, and is now performing around the world. Henry Kramer has similarly won prizes in the Queen Elizabeth and Montreal competitions and an award winner at the Julliard School.
Most of the music on this album originated in the early 20th century, with the exception of the Légende by the Polish virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski, which is from 1860.
It was during a gentle stroll around the Place de Concord, Paris, in the Spring of 1919, that celebrated impresario Serge Diaghilev suggested Stravinsky compose a ballet score based on the music of 18th-century composer, Giovanni Pergolesi. Although initially unenthusiastic, Stravinsky ‘looked and fell in love’, beginning what he considered ‘my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my later works became possible.’
For the scenario, Stravinsky and Diaghilev consulted a book of stories the latter had discovered in a Rome bookshop based on the character from popular Neapolitan commedia dell’arte stories –Pulcinella. They eventually hit upon one entitled The Four Pulcinellas, a hilarious tale of disguises and misunderstandings, in which Pulcinella dupes four young men into believing they have successfully murdered him, and then re-emerges in time to prevent them from marrying their respective sweethearts, while he wins his one true love, Pimpinella.
Stravinsky first played through everything then thought to be by Pergolesi in order to whittle down his final selection: ‘I began by composing on the Pergolesi manuscripts themselves as though I were correcting an old work of my own,’ he later explained. ‘The remarkable thing about Pulcinella is not how much but how little was added or changed.’ Indeed, Stravinsky left the melodies and their attendant bass lines almost exactly as they were originally conceived.
Five years after the 1920 Paris ballet premiere, Stravinsky arranged a suite of pieces from Pulcinella for violin and piano entitled Suite d’après des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambattista Pergolesi. This was originally intended for Polish virtuoso Paul Kochanski (see Szymanowski below), but was then adapted in 1932 in six sections under the less grandiose title Suite italienne for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin, who had premiered Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto the previous year.
Most of the music in this recital originated during the early 20th century, the one exception being the 1860 Légende by Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski. A sensational child prodigy, despite being just nine years of age with only a rudimentary knowledge of French, Wieniawski was awarded a place at the Paris Conservatoire in 1843. He re-emerged five years later as one of the finest virtuosi of his age, composing a series of brilliant showstoppers designed to showcase his highly individual technique, based on a firm, tightly-controlled bowing action.
Such was the dazzling impact of Wieniawski’s playing that in 1860 Anton Rubinstein invited him to become the first principle professor at the newly-created St. Petersburg Conservatory. That same year he composed his Légende (originally for violin and orchestra), a work so expressively potent that it melted away his future parents-in-law’s resistance to his marrying their beautiful daughter, Isabella Hampton. The wedding was an all-star affair, during which Rubinstein walked Isabella to the altar, retired opera-supremo Giacomo Rossini served as witness to the marriage and celebrated violinist Henri Vieuxtemps provided the music during the reception.
Like many other composers struggling to find their creative feet during the first two decades of the 20th century, Bartók composed music in a bewildering array of styles. One minute he might become obsessive about the motoric nature of rhythm (Allegro barbaro for piano, 1911), the next galvanise the attention with emotionally superheated outbursts of instrumental and vocal colour (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, also 1911). He could delight in unpretentious folksong arrangements, including the popular Romanian Folkdances for violin and piano of 1915, and then produce a surreal chiller such as the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1919). Throughout this period Bartók constantly peered into the abyss of atonality (keylessness) yet he invariably shrank back from abandoning the tonal tradition altogether.
It was during the late-1920s that all these seemingly conflicting elements began fusing together in a stream of indisputable masterpieces, ranging from the breathtaking rhythmic propulsion and ear-tweaking sonorities of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1927), to the two blazingly inventive violin rhapsodies of 1928, composed originally for violin and piano and orchestrated the following year.
It appears the rhapsodies were composed in virtual secrecy, as the first anyone knew about them was when Bartók nonchalantly showed them to his violinist friend Zoltán Székely one Spring day in 1928. The Second Rhapsody was dedicated to Székely, while the First went to legendary Hungarian virtuoso, Joseph Szigeti. Cast in two movements, designed to be played independently as well as together, Bartók typically offsets a deeply introspective Lassu (literally ‘slow’) against a highly exuberant Friss (’fast’) in the manner of the verbunkus, a dance played originally to accompany army recruitment.
The fact that Karol Szymanowski composed some of the most important violin music of the last century is due almost entirely to his friendship with Paul Kochanski, who in 1901 (aged just 14) was appointed concertmaster of the newly founded Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto was composed especially for him, so too his three Mythes for violin and piano, whose intoxicating musical flow, freed from the tyranny of the bar-line, creates a series of enraptured phrases of heightened lyrical intensity.
The three movements, all linked with scenes from Greek mythology, are entitled ‘Arethusa’s Spring’ (the story of the eponymous nymph, who when fleeing Alpheus is turned into a stream), ‘Narcissus’ (whose intoxication with his own reflection led to his becoming a flower) and ‘Dryads and Pan’, which encapsulates the dancing of the dryads and Pan playing his pipes.
Szymanowski later paid tribute to Kochanski, declaring at his memorial that he was ‘indebted to him alone for imparting to me his profoundly penetrating, secret knowledge of the violin.’ It is a sign of the high esteem in which he was held that at his memorial service the pallbearers included such musical legends as Arturo Toscanini, Frank and Walter Damrosch, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Fritz Kreisler, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski and Efrem Zimbalist
Maurice Ravel was a meticulous craftsman, the fastidious creator of some of the most exquisite music in existence. He believed that there was a perfect solution to every musical problem and that it was his responsibility to polish each new piece until it sparkled like a piece of iridescent jewellery. This attention to detail extended to all parameters of his life. He was always immaculately presented, wearing the latest snappy fashions topped off by a pair of black patent leather shoes that he couldn’t bear to be parted from.
Igor Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as ‘the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers’, and in a sense he was right. However, the cool exterior and careful organisation of Ravel’s day-to-day existence was little more than a dazzling facade behind which lay a personality of extraordinary complexity – and passion. Ravel declared himself ‘of the same type as the Romantics’, while emphasising that ‘one doesn’t need to open one’s chest to show that one has a heart.’
Tzigane is the only work Ravel intended specifically as a virtuoso showpiece, a dazzling encore written in 1924 in the popular gypsy style, constantly enlivened by the composer’s inimitable harmonic palette. The dramatically imposing introduction for solo violin leads directly to the helter-skelter pyrotechnics of the main orchestral section. The latter clearly fired the imagination of the dedicatee, gypsy violinist Jelly d’Arányi, leading Ravel to excitedly remark: ‘I don’t know what she’s doing – but I like it!’