Monday, October 21, 2013

Wieniawski - Violin Concerto No. 1 In F-sharp Minor

Henryk Wieniawski was one of the great violin virtuosos of the 19th century who was born in Poland and showed such great ability that at the age of nine he was admitted into the Paris Conservatory of Music. There were many Polish exiles in Paris at the time due to the political circumstances of their homeland, with Chopin being one of them. The young Wieniawski met Chopin, who became an artistic influence on him. After he graduated (about twelve or thirteen years of age) he began giving concerts and recitals. Wieniawski's contemporaries thought highly of his abilities and compared him to Paganini.

In 1860 when he was 25 years old he accepted an invitation from Anton Rubinstein to go to St. Petersburg, Russia. He accepted the invitation and lived there until 1872.  He taught many students, participated in string quartets and led orchestras during his time there. In 1872-1874 he toured The United States with Rubinstein. Rubinstein wrote about the tour:
"During the time I remained in America we traveled through the United States as far as New Orleans, and I appeared before an audience two hundred and fifteen times. It often happened that we gave two or three concerts in as many different cities in the same day. The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfaction, that when several years later I was asked to repeat my American tour, with half a million guaranteed to me, I refused point blank. It may be interesting to note that the contract was fulfilled to the letter. 
Wieniawski, a man of extremely nervous temperament, who, owing to ill health quite often failed to meet his appointments in St. Petersburg, - both at the Grand Theater and at the Conservatory, - never missed one concert in America. However ill he might be, he always contrived to find strength enough to appear on the platform with his fairy-like violin. The secret of his punctuality lay in the fact that by the terms of the contract he must forfeit one thousand francs for every non-appearance." 
Anton Rubinstein
Wieniawski moved to Brussels in 1875 and became professor of violin at the Conservatory there. His heart condition (the illness spoken of by Rubinstein) became worse, but he continued giving concerts, sometimes suffering attacks of angina so sever he had to pause in the middle of the concert. He began yet another concert tour in 1879 in Russia, but before finishing the tour he was taken to a hospital in Odessa after a concert.  He died of a massive heart attack a few weeks later. He was 44 years old.

Wieniawski began composing early and his first composition was published in 1847 when he was twelve years old. His opus numbers only went to 24, but he wrote some very important works in the violin literature, including two published violin concertos (a third has been lost).
The first concerto is in three movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  The clarinet begins the movement and the rest of the orchestra follows with the playing of the first theme. The cellos announce the second theme that is taken over by the violins that soar into their high register before the soloist enters with the violin's take on the first theme. The violin is naturally the dominant voice as it explores both themes while also playing some new ones of its own. Roughly in the middle of the movement the violin spits out aggressive down-bowed double stops in a section that ultimately leads to a repetition of the first theme by the orchestra which soon gives in to the cadenza for the soloist. With notes in the stratosphere and fireworks galore, the cadenza segues into a repetition of the second theme, which is followed by a varied repeat of the middle section. A coda follows played with fire by the violin that contains a repetition of the opening theme and the ending of the movement.

II. Preghiera: Larghetto -  Preghiera means prayer in Italian, and gives an indication of how the composer meant this music to be played. It is in direct contrast to the preceding movement as it is lyrical and calm. It is also very short.

III.  Rondo: Allegro giocoso -  There is no pause between the preceding movement as the brass play a fanfare to begin the finale.  The violin dances with the orchestra through this movement save for a contrasting section that is more mellow in nature. There are no fireworks for the soloist in this last movement as in the first, but it still demands much of the violin and player. The violin increases speed and wraps up the concerto with another note in the stratosphere before the final chord.

The second violin concerto of Wieniawski is played more often in concert than the first, with the first being criticized as being out of balance because of the weaknesses of the last two movements as compared to the first movement. No doubt Wieniawski was feeling his way with his first concerto as it was his first attempt at a full-blown concerto, and he obviously learned a lot from the experience of the first to make the second more balanced and agreeable with audiences. The first movement of this concerto is the star, but the other two movements aren't terrible music. Wieniawski was one of the 19th centuries great violinist composers along with musicians such as Paganini, Joachim and others that had a tremendous influence on violin playing and used their compositions to show off their technique and musicianship.

The argument can be made that the truly great violin concertos were written by composers that were not virtuosos (I'm thinking primarily of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms), but that doesn't mean concertos written by virtuosos are not without merit. The concertos of Wieniawski are great in their own way and are worth listening to and studying .

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