With this disc Hyperion reach Volume 15 in their series of The Romantic Violin Concerto. Strangely, I feel that in some ways this is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. By the very fact we are at the fifteenth volume, with no sign of the sequence ending, shows that there are an awful lot of similar compositions by little-known or forgotten composers. It is up to individual listeners to decide whether all of the music offered is of similar worth.
Likewise, these discs are a salutary lesson in the transience of fame. Both composers represented here had varying degrees of significance in their own lifetimes but only a specialist would even recognise their names today. In the circumstances a little biography might help. Emil Młynarski is one of that rare breed; a true musical polymath—violin virtuoso, pedagogue, gifted conductor and orchestral trainer and composer. For good measure his son-in-law Artur Rubinstein characterised him as 'one of the most attractive men I ever met', and at his funeral eulogy he was described as '... one of the finest persons in the world.' It was Młynarski who persuaded Elgar to write his Polonia and he headed up the conducting courses at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and orchestras in Russia, Scotland and his native Poland.
As far as the current disc is concerned it is only the music that is of concern. Tully Potter in his well written liner—offered in Hyperion's standard tri-lingual format—expresses surprise that despite a considerable success at its 1898 premiere the Violin Concerto No 1, which open the disc, was not revived until 2011. I find that neglect less of a mystery. What is clear is that Młynarski the composer really understood the mechanics and virtuosic potential of the violin. Within the opening soloist's flurries we get a survey of late Romantic violinistic display from sky-rocketing arpeggios to complex double stopping and chordal harmonics. This is the full gamut of technical effect. And for me this is the rub; the music is the servant of the virtuosity not the other way around. Strip away the thrilling display—which would impress any first performance audience—and there is little musical meat left.
Important to note at this point the quality of the performance here. The violinist is the young—mid-twenties—Russian/American player Eugene Ugorski. With the exception of the 2nd Młynarski concerto and the Zarzycki Mazurka, these are all first recordings and Ugorski is a dazzling guide; fearless in his attack and utterly secure in even the most demanding passagework. I do find his playing rather unrelenting and there is a febrile intensity to the performance of the 1st concerto in particular that I find rather wearing. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra provide solid support. The orchestration of the 2nd concerto is considerably subtler than the 1st—it's a better work all round. I am not sure I would say this is one of Hyperion's best recordings; there is plenty of detail and weight but the microphone positioning seems less natural than Hyperion often achieve—the woodwind especially feel rather close and synthetic.
As mentioned the Second Concerto is a substantially better work all round, still at heart a virtuoso display piece but one with a greater level of emotional weight and being musically memorable. By some distance the central Quasi Notturno [track 5] is the finest music on the disc and this does receive a very sympathetic and attractive performance from Ugorski—who does not force the music as he is prone to earlier on the disc. Important to note though that Szymanowski's 1st concerto (dedicated to Młynarski pupil Paweł Kochański) dates from the same year. This does throw into relief the huge creative gulf between the genius of Szymanowkski and the competence of Młynarski. The latter's concerto could have been written at any time in the thirty years preceding its actual creation. I do not set any great store or significance to compositional timelines; a work should be treated on its own merits regardless of the date or place of its composition—unfortunately I do not find this work of huge interest in its own right and it is hugely reactionary.
The companion works on the disc are by Aleksander Zarzycki. He belonged to an earlier generation than Młynarski and is more in the mould of virtuoso/composer—the latter skill serving his needs in the former role. The two works here are therefore deliberately and unashamedly virtuoso display miniatures in the style of Sarasate or Wieniawski. The more modest scale and aspirations of these pieces seems to work better to my ear. They do not outstay their welcome with ever more demanding writing and the generally lighter feel produces playing from Ugorski where he seems to be enjoying the sheer brilliance of the music for its own sake. Again, no great claims should be made for these works’ significance but it is a delight to hear them as flamboyantly played as here.
Dedicated followers of this series will want to add this disc to their collections as will collectors of unusual violin repertoire. Playing time is a reasonable if not overly generous 64:52. For the mildly curious I would suggest significantly more substantial musical fare can be found in other volumes of this series—there are no major masterpieces on offer here.