Double play

Szymanowski: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Three Paganini Caprices; Romance Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Silke Avenhaus (piano) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle (EMI 5 55607 2)
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It all began with three pieces for violin and piano - Myths, Szymanowski called them. And myths grew into a whole mythology - the First Violin Concerto. It's the kind of piece that puts you back in touch with your senses, the kind of piece you must lose yourself in - not so much stream of consciousness as stream of subconsciousness. An amazing magic carpet ride to places unknown. No beginnings, no endings, no narrative, no development - except in the most ephemeral sense. Percy Grainger would have called it "a ramble". The emergence of the principal subject is a little like finding and turning the key to the pleasure dome. If desire has a sound, this is it.

I doubt there is a more sensuous, unashamedly hedonistic piece in the repertoire. Each moment, each phrase, each new idea is the promise of more to come. Overripe horns scoop one opulent tutti after another from the path of the next, the textures shimmer like the best of Byzantium. And all the while the solo violin - the soul of Szymanowski, to be sure - dreams on. Sustained rapture - that's what the piece is all about. And Thomas Zehetmair - very much an integral part of the sound mass here, rightly so (even the brief but showy cadenza seems almost out of place in this context) - delivers in spades.

Sixteen years on, the Second Concerto emerges from a heavy mist (what a marvellous opening this is) to bring us rudely down to earth. From myths to reality. From music of the spheres to "world" music. From out of this world to the top of the world - the Tatra Mountains, where Szymanowski left his heart. The ecstasy and the opulence are still very much a part of the equation, but the language is tougher and more direct, the tunes plain-speaking, folk-inflected, very much of the mother tongue. Nothing ephemeral about this music: it knows exactly where it's coming from and where it's going to. More great sounds, more power to Zehetmair's elbow (a lot of heat and temperament in this bow), and a recording that doesn't flinch from all that Rattle and his band throw at it.

Bonuses come in the form of the Three Paganini Caprices according to Szymanowski, arranged like a mini-Sonata with inquisitive harmonics and one sneaky variation of his own, and Romance, a free-ranging vocalise with Straussian overtones, the shape of melodic fantasies to come. ES

The opening of Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto is like nothing else in music. 1916? It can't be - surely this is a contemporary of Lutoslawski, a bright young representative of Poland's "avant-garde with a human face"? The entry of the solo violin brings a sudden warm gust of fin de siecle romanticism, and there are riper, more exquisite things to come; and yet there is a more sinister side, too - Szymanowski's eroticism doesn't exclude terror and pain. Thomas Zehetmair and Simon Rattle find their way impressively through this ambiguous fantasy world. The result is a powerful performance, lacking some of the tenderness and spontaneity of the old Wanda Wilkomirska recording (for a long time the only way to hear the work in this country), but compensating with lyrical intensity and dramatic urgency. The final climax reveals an unsuspected tragic grandeur - it's no longer quite so hard to see this as a wartime work.

If Zehetmair and Rattle's First Concerto compares with the best on record, their Second outruns all the competition. Those who, like me, have long believed that this was a remarkable work, needing only the right kind of performance, may still be surprised at the dark depths Zehetmair finds in the solo writing, or at the thrilling inevitability of the climaxes.

The recordings are first rate, too - superbly balanced (no easy matter in either concerto) with a sultry, atmospheric sound, but clear enough to reveal new details of scoring. (What is that strange metallic whispering in the opening of No 2? A cymbal? It sounds much more exotic.) Including the four violin and piano miniatures was an inspiration, especially the cool, reflective Romance - a marvellous way to lower the temperature after the glorious excesses of the two concertos. SJ