Violin instruments

Poland's top violinists

Italy is the nation that gave birth to the greatest number of violin players. Their hegemony culminated with the stellar career of the legendary virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. The only real competition he had were Poland's 19th-century concert violinists: Karol Lipiński (1790-1861) and his great successor Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880). There was another exceptional Polish violinist of whom little is known today. A student of Paganini's and a true child prodigy, Apolinary Kątski (1826-1879), made his debut at the age of three and achieved considerable success on European stage. He lived in Paris from 1836 to 1849, and gave his first performance in the French capital at the age of eleven. Across the English channel in London he played during Queen Victoria's coronation celebrations in 1837. His performance won praise from the greatest composers of the time: Hector Berlioz, Giacomo Meyerbeer and his Parisian teacher, Paganini. Who remembers him now?

The lives of Lipiński and Wieniawski are, in contrast, known perfectly well. We know, for instance, that Paganini ranked Lipiński among the world's best violinists right after himself, which was a sign of modesty on his part. We also know that the two gave a joint concert in April 1818, while in May 1829 they perfumed together at the coronation of tsar Nicolas I in Warsaw. Lipiński is rightly credited with elevating Polish violin performance practice to international prominence and giving rise to the Polish style of violin playing. "Immense musical refinement and technical virtuosity, crystal-clear intonation, perfect interpretation and, above all, a deep, deep tone: these are the characteristics of Polish style of violinist playing," wrote Professor Maria Zduniak. In 1830 Lipiński gave up public performing for three years to work on perfecting his playing. His efforts produced outstanding results. He toured across Europe; when organising a concert in Paris he was assisted by Fryderyk Chopin. In 1839 Lipiński moved to Dresden, where he served as the concertmaster with the orchestra of king Frederick Augustus for the next 20 years. He was an excellent performer of chamber music, which he played, for instance, with Franz Liszt. He was also a successful professor: in 1845 he tutored fourteen-year-old Józef Joachim who grew up to become one of the world's most significant violinists in history. In 1848 Lipiński taught the then thirteen-year old Wieniawski, who became his worthy successor later on in life.

Wieniawski's prime coincided with the heyday of violin playing: the Romantic era dominated by violin virtuosos. Both Wieniawski and Lipiński were composers, too, as the greatest violinist of the time would also write music for themselves. Their pieces remains the hardest violin repertoire to this day. What was so special about Wieniawski? When describing his personality and playing, critics would often highlight his "vivid temperament", "uncommon bravery and courage" and "ease as well as sophistication" with which he performed the most challenging figures. "The way he played was characteristically soft and melodic; the sounds he produced were unmatchable: his listeners would enter a state of ecstatic amazement," some wrote. He must have been exceptionally talented indeed: he was accepted to the Paris conservatoire at the age of eight and graduated three years later in 1846, obtaining a gold medal. Some speculated that he took over the magic command of the violin from Paganini. Everywhere he performed, he was praised, revered and celebrated on a par with royalty. 

Also impressive were the career and pedagogic achievements of Stanisław Barcewicz (1858-1929). He was particularly praised for his interpretations of music by Wieniawski and Felix Mendelssohn. He played a violin made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, considered one of the greatest luthiers of all time. Barcewicz was the concertmaster of the Warsaw Opera as well as a conductor and professor. One of his students was the top-class violinist and outstanding symphony composer Mieczysław Karłowicz (1874–1909), who wrote for his professor one of the greatest masterpieces of concert music. Barcewicz performed the world premiere of the piece in Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1904.

It is impossible not to mention here Emil Młynarski (1870-1935), who began his career as successful solo violinist, only later becoming a professor, composer and conductor. When the next great generation of European virtuosos entered the stage, we, the Polish, could boast Paweł Kochański (1887-1934), who started to study the violin at the age of seven under the guidance of his father and Mr Młynarski. As a mature artist he amazed and inspired the most prominent composers of the time, including Sergei Prokofiev, Aleksander Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky and Karol Szymanowski, who wrote his greatest masterpieces for Kochański. The violinist's instrument was a Stradivarius. Apart from performing on both hemispheres, he was a professor. In the last few years of his life he taught at New York's Juilliard School.

Another stellar figure in this pantheon is Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947), who was not only an extraordinary artist; he was an institution. At fourteen he shot to fame with a performance of the Brahms Concerto that was applauded from the audience by the composer himself. His exiting interpretation of the Beethoven Concerto entered the performance canon of the masterpiece. In 1902 he gave a series of unprecedented concerts in Munich: he played eighteen violin concertos in the course of six evenings! In May 1903 in Genoa he played a violin that had belonged to Paganini: a clear sign of the great violin tradition being continued. He was a seasoned chamber musician and a part of a legendary trio that brought together Ignaz Friedman and Pablo Casals. He was also – and this is a less known fact – a pioneer of European integration. In 1932 he wrote Vaterland Europa, whose revolutionary propositions have become reality since then. On 26 December 1936 he founded the Palestine Orchestra, the predecessor of one of today's top international ensembles, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another Pole and a citizen of the world who was a great contemporary violinist was Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988). He owed his fantastic career to Huberman, who induced his parents to send him to Berlin to study with famous violinist and teacher Carl Flesch when the boy was ten years old. At fifteen Szeryng made his debut in Warsaw playing what became "his" Beethoven Concerto under the legendary Brunon Walter. He performed admirable wartime deeds, playing for the Allied forces and acting as translator for general Sikorski during the latter's mission in Mexico, whose citizen Szeryng became in 1946 and remained for the rest of his life. His repertoire included over forty concertos and a few dozen of sonatas from different musical periods. He was particularly praised for his ingenious interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach's sonatas and solo partitas. He enjoyed a fantastic career, played under excellent conductors and with the best ensembles, won prestigious recording awards, earned highest accolades, always emphasising his Polishness. 

The list of Polish students of Mr Flesch is longer and includes Włocławek-born Szymon Goldberg (1909-1993), Lviv-born Bronisław Gimpel (1911-1979), who performed on both hemispheres and was a member of the Władysław Szpilman Trio, and Irena Dubiska (1899-1989), who debuted in Wittenberg at the age of nine and, apart from Flesch, studied – and performed – with Huberman. Let us not forget another great Polish female violinist Eugenia Umińska (1910-1980), who was a popular performance artist between 1927 and 1939, and propagator of contemporary Polish music. Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), who wrote significant compositions for the violin, including six concertos, was another in the succession of prominent violinist-composers. Still with us today is the amazing Ida Haendel (b. 1928).

Henryk Wieniawski: "Dudziarz" (A Piper) - Mazurka in D major Op. 19 No. 2 (a part)
Bronisław Gimpel - violin, Władysław Szpilman - piano
recorded 14.08.1960 at Warsaw; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Fritz Kreisler: "Tambourin chinois"  Op. 3 (a part)
Bronisław Gimpel - violin; Karol Gimpel - piano
recorded in 1930 at Warsaw; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Grażyna Bacewicz: Oberek No. 1 (a part)

Grażyna Bacewicz - violin, Kiejstut Bacewicz - piano
recorded in 1952; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Henryk Wieniawski: Scherzo-Tarantella in G minor Op. 16 (a part)
Ida Haendel - violin, Adela Kotowska - piano
recorded in 1939; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

The names that spring to mind when asked to list the greatest Polish contemporary violinists are: Wanda Wiłkomirska (b. 1929); the highly expressive Krzysztof Jakowicz (b. 1939), who performs around the globe propagating Polish music; Kaja Danczowska (b. 1949), who stuns with her musicality; the amazing virtuoso Konstanty Andrzej Kulka (b. 1947); Roman Lasocki (b. 1948), who has been specialising in contemporary music for many years now; as well as two soloists, chamber musicians and concertmasters of Berlin's renowned Philharmonic and Deutsche Oper: Daniel Stabrawa (b. 1955) and Tomasz Tomaszewski (b. 1951).

Niccolò Paganini - Capriccio Op. 1 No. 24; Konstanty Andrzej Kulka - violin

Henryk Wieniawski: Capriccio "Alla saltarella" Op. 10 No. 5 (a part)
Wanda Wiłkomirska - violin
recorded in 1952 at Poznan; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Antoni Szałowski: Suite; 1st mov. - Allegro (a part)
Krzysztof Jakowicz - violin; Maria Morawska - piano
recorded in 1962 at Poznan; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Andrzej Panufnik: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
1. Rubato; 2. Adagio; 3. Vivace
Kaja Danczowska - violin; Orkiestra Kameralna Polskiego Radia i Telewizji w Poznaniu, Agnieszka Duczmal - conductor
recorded at Poznan 24.02.1984; © 2013 Polskie Radio SA, IMiT

As for the youngest and middle generation, let us give due credit to the Polish prize-winners of top violin playing competitions, including the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Playing Competition: Agata SzymczewskaAnna Maria Staśkiewicz, Bartłomiej Nizioł and Piotr Pławner, and the brilliant Mariusz Patyra, Poland's only winner of the Paganini competition in Genoa (2001).

Niccolò Paganini: Capriccio Op. 1 No. 5 (a part)
Bartłomiej Nizioł - violin
recorded in 1991 at Poznan; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano; 3rd mov. - Perpetuum mobile (a part)
Bartłomiej Nizioł - violin; Andrzej Guz - piano
recorded in 1991 at Poznan; © 2005 Towarzystwo Muzyczne im. Henryka Wieniawskiego

Adam Rozlach

The recording of Andrzej Panufnik's Concerto above (world premiere on CD) is a part of 7 CDs album issued by Polskie Radio SA and IMiT, containing Kaja Danczowska's archive recordings from 1974-2007.

Apolinary Kątski
Apolinary Kątski (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)

Stanisław Barcewicz
Stanisław Barcewicz (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)

Emil Młynarski
Emil Młynarski (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)

Pawel Kochański i Artur Rubinstein
Paweł Kochański (left) and Artur Rubinstein (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)