Szymanowski and Kochanski

The violin music of Karol Szymanowski was closely bound up with his friendship with the Russian-born violinist Pawel Kochanski. The two belonged to the Young Poland group, which also included the composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg and the pianists Harry Neuhaus and Artur Rubinstein.

From 1909 Szymanowski wrote a series of masterpieces for Kochanski, rising to a climax during World War I, when, confined to the family estate in Ukraine, he studied ancient religions and mystic writings. With his Mythes and Nocturne and Tarantella of 1915, he felt that, with Kochanski’s technical help, he had found a new way of writing for the violin.

The First Concerto came in the autumn of the following year. It breathed the same air of shimmering exoticism and impressionism, but took the new processes even further. It was influenced by the music of Debussy and the writings of the Young Poland poet Tadeusz Micinski, especially the lyric May Night, which translates: ‘All the birds pay tribute to me / for today I wed a goddess. / And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, / burning in amorous conflagration’.

The result was an intensely romantic symphonic poem with solo violin, unlike any concerto that had gone before it. Szymanowski handled a large orchestra, including triple woodwind, with finesse. Kochanski provided his usual technical advice and later wrote the cadenza, receiving the dedication in return; however, he was not able to give the world premiere. That was entrusted to the admirable violinist Józef Oziminski, later a conductor, who played the new work with the Warsaw Philharmonic under the great violinist–conductor–composer Emil Mlynarski on 1 November 1922. ‘The sound is so magical that people here were completely transfixed,’ Szymanowski wrote to Kochanski after the concert, ‘and just imagine, Pawel, the violin comes out on top the whole time!’

Kochanski gave the American premiere two years later at Carnegie Hall, New York, with the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. He brought the concerto to London in 1928 and in 1930 Jelly d’Arányi played it at the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts conducted by Malcolm Sargent.

Sadly Kochanski made hardly any records and died young; with his exceptional purity of tone and line, he would have made a superb recording of the concerto.

  • Pawel Kochanski, c. 1920, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Karol Szymanowski, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Józef Oziminski, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Szymanowski, Kochanski, Fitelberg, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Eugenia Uminska, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Wanda Wilkomirska, The Tully Potter Collection

It was left to two fine Polish violinists, Eugenia Uminska and Wanda Wilkomirska, to establish the concerto in the repertoire after World War II and make the first recordings in 1948 and 1961 respectively.

Tully Potter