Concerto No. 2 for Violin in D minor, op. 22

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            Born into a distinguished family of Polish musicians, Wieniawski was the toast of the world of eminent violinists in the middle of the nineteenth century. Today, as with most virtuosos who composed modestly, his name is familiar mainly to violinists, who play his formidable etudes and salon works.  The significant exception, though, is his second concerto for violin and orchestra—a mainstay of that repertoire.  If anyone may be said to have played himself to death, it is surely he.  For his life consisted, from an early age, of incessant touring that would exhaust anyone, not to speak of one with fatal heart disease.

            Recognized early on as a prodigy of startling talent, he was concertizing from an impossibly early age, and wangled an exception (he too young, as well as a Polish national) for admission to the Paris Conservatory at the age of eight.  Leaving after a little more than four years there, he began his serious “adult” career, touring with his younger brother in Russia and Central Europe.  Wanting to compose, he soon went back to the Conservatory for composition lessons, and then it was off to an extensive career as a traveling soloist.  He did settle down somewhat for a while in St. Petersburg, Russia, teaching at the conservatory there, at the behest of Anton Rubinstein.  During his twelve years there, he composed most of his best works, including the second concerto, and developed a lasting personal and professional association with the great pianist.

            At the end of his tenure in Russia he began touring again in earnest, with Rubenstein as his concert companion, starting with a remarkable tour of North America.  They played an amazing 215 concerts the first year alone.   And he didn’t stick to the big Eastern cities, either.  In the second year of the tour he went as far as California, playing concerts literally all over.   He even concertized in such relatively obscure places for the time as Peoria, Illinois and Evansville, Indiana.  The traveling conditions in 1872 in the US must have been ferocious, but it was typical of Wieniawski’s zeal to endure them.  It is said that he was always almost broke, owing to his severe gambling addiction, plus he had seven children and a wife to support.  His heart condition was exacerbated by subsequent years of intense touring, and after breaking down completely in several concerts, he played his farewell concert in Odessa.  He succumbed at the age of forty-five in Moscow.  His friends had to play a benefit concert in St. Petersburg shortly before he died to pay off his life insurance premium to avoid leaving his family in penury.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

            His musical style was a reflection of the man and the way that he played.  Possessed of a superlative technique, he amazed with his mastery.  Every advanced tool of technical “wizardry” associated with the legendary violin virtuosos was apparently of no challenge to him.  And yet, the intensity of his emotion and expressivity is what seems to have impressed the musical establishment the most.  The best performers and teachers who heard him were consistently effusive in their praise of his uniqueness, his warm tone, his intensity, and his ability to practically hypnotize his audiences with his playing.  In summation, he was hailed as one of the great geniuses of the violin of all time, and true successor to the immortal, Pagannini.

            The second violin concerto—dedicated to the great violin virtuoso, Sarasate-- bears all these marks, and more.   A work of swaggering Romanticism, it exhibits all of the earmarks of the times:  extravagant, expressive lyricism, borne by stunning technical requirements.  Simply put, it is a perfect example of a composition conceived to showcase the essence of the violinist/composer.

            The first movement begins in a moody, stormy vein, with brief solos from members of the wind section.  After an extensive orchestra introduction, the soloist explores this material, replete with all the virtuoso fireworks one might expect.  The lyrical contrasting idea follows, ending with more energetic closing ideas.   But, then a most unusual event occurs: unlike almost ninety-nine percent of all concertos, the movement ends without a development or recapitulation.  The movement segues smoothly after the coda directly into the second movement. Wieniawkski simply, like all capable artists, followed his own lead, and in this case, saw no need in saying more.  Proceeding right into the middle, slow movement, the solo violin explores the heartfelt lyricism that one would expect from a mid-century Slavic master.

            The last movement, “with fire,” is unequivocally that, beginning as a kind of cadenza for the soloist, at breakneck speed.  After dashing along madly for a while, the mood suddenly moderates and the closing section ensues.  Wieniawski marks it as à la Zingara (in the Gypsy manner), and it swaggers with all of the charm that implies—familiar to many from Brahms’ occasional exploration of the style.  Attentive listeners will spot the employment, here, of the idea from the lyrical, second section of the first movement.  A coda in the best “Wieniawski” style soon brings this essay in the finest ultra-Romantic style to a dashing end, reminding us all of the genius of the “lesser masters.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan