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8.550744 - WIENIAWSKI: Violin Showpieces
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Henryk Wienlawski (1835-1880)
Violin Showpieces


The Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski was born in Lublin in 1835 and had his early training in his native country, before his admission at the age of eight to the Paris Conservatoire, where he entered the class of Massart, with whom he continued to study after completing his course. In 1848 he travelled to St Petersburg, where his performances made an excellent impression on Vieuxtemps, the court violinist. The following year he returned to the Paris Conservatoire to acquire the necessary skills for composition. By the age of fifteen he was able to embark on a full career as a virtuoso, accompanied by his younger brother Józef, two years his junior, who, like his mother and his maternal uncle, had become a very considerable pianist.

Between 1851 and 1853 the Wieniawskis were in Russia, giving concert after concert. Henryk Wieniawski had already turned his attention to composition, with a Grand caprice fantastique in 1847 and an Allegro de sonate the following year in collaboration with his brother. By 1853 he had written some fourteen compositions for violin and piano and violin and orchestra. Of these the first Violin Concerto won particular favour and secured his welcome in Germany, after he had played the concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. In London he played with the Beethoven Quartet Society, together with the cellist Piatti, Joachim and Ernst, and in 1860 married the niece of the Irish pianist and composer George Osborne. Performance in Paris with Anton Rubinstein led to an invitation to move to Russia, where he served as court violinist and for some years as professor of the violin at the Conservatory that Rubinstein had established in St. Petersburg. It was with the orchestra under the latter’s direction that Wieniawski gave the first performance of his Second Violin Concerto in St Petersburg in 1862.

In 1872 Wieniawski left Russia, resuming his career as a virtuoso, initially in partnership with Rubinstein. From 1875 to 1877 he taught at the Brussels Conservatory, where he succeeded Vieuxtemps, and during this period and thereafter continued his performing career, now with deteriorating health. In Russia again he set out on a concert-tour with Tchaikovsky’s one-time innamorata Desirée Artôt, but this was interrupted by a breakdown in health and a brief attempt at convalescence at the house of Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck. He died in Moscow on the last day of March, 1880, at the age of forty-four.

Wieniawski’s Souvenir de Moscou, originally written for violin and orchestra, was composed in 1853. Starting with a flourish, the work allows the violin an exhibition of virtuosity, before the lyrical melody at the heart of the piece is heard. The violinist then provides an ornamented running accompaniment to the theme, in which harmonics are intermingled. This leads to a rapid and very Russian dance, the melody in artificial harmonics and a brilliant conclusion.

The E major Capriccio-Valse was written in 1852 and is introduced by the piano, which the violin interrupts with interjected recitative, before the waltz sequence starts. Again considerable use is made of harmonics, double-stopping and other technical devices, although the lyricism of the work prevails throughout and is never sacrificed to mere technical display.

The theme of the Theme and Variations is first stated in multiple stops by the violinist and then, with accompaniment, in the higher register of the instrument. A brilliant cadenza links this to the cheerful following variation, and a further quicker cross-string version of the theme. The next variation, unaccompanied, makes use of left-hand pizzicato, before, with added accompaniment, using the lower register of the violin. Double-stopping marks the next treatment of the material, with passages of artificial harmonics. A gentle return to the earlier version of the theme leads to further lyrical exploration of the material and a dance-like variation, played largely off the string and culminating in a brilliant conclusion.

The Polonaise, the Polish dance that had made its way from village to ballroom and thence, with the help of composers like Chopin, to the fashionable salon and to the concert-hall, provides an opportunity for virtuoso violin treatment, evidence, if any were needed, of Wieniawski’s native origins. Le carnaval russe evokes the spirit of Russia, where he achieved his first and greatest successes and where he ended his career. Dating from the early 1850s and published in Leipzig in 1854, it allows the violinist-composer to exploit relatively simple thematic material with all the technical virtuosity at his command, including astonishing feats of left-hand pizzicato and the favourite contemporary virtuoso device of accompanying a melody on one string with a tremolo on the string below.

The Gigue in E minor was published posthumously and follows a theme of Baroque contour if not Baroque rhythm with an embellished version of the material. The Saltarello, the rapid Neapolitan dance, originally for two violins, offers an opportunity for feats of agility and perpetual motion. To this the four Mazurkas, written in 1853 and 1860, provide a contrast. The first of the group allows the Polish village fiddler a moment of preparation before he launches into the dance. The mazurka encompasses certain varieties of rhythm, within the general form of the dance. These rhythms include that of the obertass and the kujawiak, reflected in two of the four Wieniawski Mazurkas, while the Polish Song has a more obviously vocal element about it, a reminder that the mazurka was in origin a dancesong.

Wieniawski dedicated his Légende, written in 1860, the year of his marriage, to his wife Isabella Hampton. The musical contents of the work match its characteristically romantic title, as the tale unfolds. To this the Tarantelle makes a lively and brilliant contrast, a version of an ltalian dance, the rapidity of which has been suggested either as the result of or remedy for the bite of the tarantula spider, although a purely geographical derivation might seem more probable.

Keith Anderson

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