Interview: Discovering Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Anne Akiko Meyers

October 5, 2017, 8:17 AM · Back in 2010, I had my 15 minutes with the 1741 'Vieuxtemps' del Gesù, the violin that is now in the hands of Anne Akiko Meyers, for lifetime use. At the time, the violin was for sale, and the price tag was $18 million. It was a beautiful specimen, but a tricky partner. I played some Bach on it, some slow things. The fiddle seemed completely unimpressed with my efforts, even a little unwilling to play along.

"Go big or go home, Girl," it seemed to say. It had such a thick and rich sound, with so many overtones, and yet it seemed to yearn for something fast and showy, something with sparkle. That was my fleeting impression, but it was a strong one.

When Anne gained possession of it, I wondered what she would play on this finicky violin, and how it would respond. I also wondered if it might take some time to find the perfect three-way match between its qualities as an instrument, her qualities as a player, and the qualities of a particular work. To be sure, an excellent player and an excellent violin are going to make beautiful music together, period. But I suspected certain pieces would draw out the character of that violin more than others.

Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1, the centerpiece of her new album called Fantasia, seems to be a piece that ignites those qualities. The album also includes Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Fantasia" and Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane," all played with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with Kristjan Järvi conducting.

I was sure I knew the Szymanowski, based on the usual calculus: familiar composer + violin concerto = I know this piece. But I didn't -- not at all! It's a swirly, atmospheric work that sounds part-Debussy, part-Stravinsky.

What did Anne think of it? I spoke to her recently in Los Angeles, about this album, and this piece.

"It is one of the most seductive pieces, with very technically challenging moments. The harmonies are unlike anything I've heard before," Anne said. "Szymanowski wrote it for Pawel Kochanski, who was one of the great violinists of the 20th century. He was a Polish violinist who also helped Prokofiev with his first violin concerto. He actually wrote the cadenza of the Szymanowski - an amazing cadenza towards the end of the piece - it's kind of on steroids! The character and mood is whimsical and fairy-like, with exotic, erotic melodies, in a very lush, deliciously romantic style - it is so rewarding to learn and perform. At the very ending there is a whistling effect, with harmonics: the fairy going off into the light."

Laurie Niles and Anne Akiko Meyers editor Laurie Niles and violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.

Between the key changes and the rhythmic changes, it's a serious technical challenge, and "the tempo is always vivace and more vivace... Vivacissimo!" she said. "There are also glorious moments, with everything so up-high on the E string, really singing. It also has a lot of challenging double-stops. There's a passage with a moving double-stop for several lines, that took forever to master!"

And how did the Vieuxtemps respond?

"That violin is just a dream to work with, and it just loves super-intense works: high notes, low notes, fast notes," she said. "It's such a powerful instrument that it can handle everything. And the riotous color comes through as well - it's all there."

If you are interested in the sheet music for Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1, Anne used the Universal Edition of the Szymanowski.

The album's title refers to another piece on the album, "Fantasia," a violin work commissioned by Anne that was the last work written by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara before his death in 2016.

"There's always a great moment of happiness and empowerment when you finally do hear a piece that has been incubating," Anne said. "It's a child that comes into the world, and you're always hoping that that child is going to find its own identity. Hearing it for the first time was a moment I'll never forget, that's for sure."

"This music is so emotional to me, and it's so beautiful and atmospheric, in its range of color," Anne said. "Performing it almost felt like an elegy, after (Rautavaara) had passed. This was the last of his masterpieces. There's definitely a parallel between some of his other works - the Cantus Arcticus, which is the concerto for birds and orchestra, and the Angel of Light Symphony. I heard those parallels when I originally read it, and I was elated beyond belief."

The piece is already available through Boosey and Hawkes, with a piano reduction. "I made sure to get a piano reduction, I think that's really imperative with any new work, as part of the commission request from the start," Anne said.

Anne was actually scheduled to play the Szymanowski first concerto in the Sept. 9 season-opener for the Puerto Rico Symphony.

"I performed the Szymanowski Concerto in Warsaw, Poland, last year with Maximiano Valdés, who is the current music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony," Anne said. "After that performance, he immediately invited me to play in Puerto Rico - how exciting to open up their new season with something as varied as the Szymanowski!"

Unfortunately Hurricane Irma was headed for the island, and the concert was cancelled. "Thankfully it skirted the island, but then right after that Maria came barreling up. It's left a devastated island."

BELOW: Anne's performance of Szymanowski Concerto No.1 from Warsaw, Poland, with the Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by Maximiano Valdes. The piece is featured in her new album, Fantasia.

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October 5, 2017 at 05:46 PM · Thanks for the interview, Laurie! Love Anne Akiko Meyers. It was while attending one of her recitals in 2011 that I decided to take up the violin again after 20+ years away. Returning to violin has been an extremely fulfilling journey so far. This year, I have had the privilege of performing Mendelssohn's violin concerto as the soloist with my community orchestra, and just a couple weeks ago, performing in South Korea as a member of the violin section within the inaugural Seoul International Community Orchestra (SICO). I have AAM to thank for providing me with inspiration!

October 5, 2017 at 06:29 PM · Kaja Danczowska has probably my favorite rendition of the Szymanowski 1. I was just listening to a Roman Totenberg recording, and very interestingly, he was playing a different cadenza that I assume he himself wrote. It's on youtube and worth checking out. I'm not fully convinced yet on it being better than the original, but I'm also not used to it.

Szymanowski thought that he and Kochanski were onto something new with their collaboration. I guess Kochanski practiced his scales in 4ths and 5ths, and those intervals and plenty of trills and tremolos and harmonics made their way into the music they wrote together and into the miniatures that Kochanski wrote himself (which are kind of curiosities).

October 5, 2017 at 06:46 PM · "the perfect three-way match between its qualities as an instrument, her qualities as a player, and the qualities of a particular work."

Oops ... forgot the bow. That's 20 lashes with a wet hank of Mongolian horsehair.

But seriously I hope she can realize her dream of playing this piece in Puerto Rico. They will need stars of that caliber to help them re-establish their cultural institutions after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

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