These Polish things3:13, 7th February 2019
Jennifer Pike’s latest disc is an exploration of Polish music and character, and a celebration of the violinist’s own identity in the wake of the Brexit vote. She spoke to Toby Deller
A recording entitled The Polish Violin might not seem like a minor act of defiance or revenge. But Jennifer Pike’s latest release was born in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum. While the vote had particular significance for many musicians in its threat to the unconditional right to work in Europe and collaborate with European colleagues, there’s a further piquancy for Pike: she herself is half Polish.
‘If I’m really honest I was devastated by the news in 2016. The world sort of turned upside down a little bit just because of having Polish relatives abroad and the fact that my parents had gone through so much difficulty with borders. They were married and then were separated because of martial law [in Poland]. My dad didn’t hear anything from my mum for six months apart from the odd word that was smuggled through in diplomatic pouches. So there was that sense of boundaries and walls and all of that. And I was born the day the Berlin wall came down!’
Hence the sense of defiance. ‘For a time I was rebelling against my English side – for a few months, I would say,’ she recalls. ‘I had to play Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending on the day after the referendum and I thought to myself: how do I feel about playing this? I don’t know if I can. Go on stage and feel this music, which is so wonderful and is so important to me: how can I perform it in this context? But of course, I shook myself up and said: this has nothing to do with it.’
Conversely, she resolved to discover more about her Polish heritage, and Polish violin repertoire specifically. Perhaps because it was something that had been on her mind for some time anyway, this response has been more enduring, with her record company on hand to capture the results.
It’s really been a way of celebrating Polish culture, especially at a time when maybe it has been misunderstood.
‘I think Chandos were delighted because they very much like Polish music and have always wanted to do this; they’ve already put out lots of Bacewicz and composers like that. So they were the ideal company to work with. It’s really been a way of celebrating Polish culture, especially at a time when maybe it has been misunderstood.’
She describes this atmosphere of misunderstanding, typified by ‘slurs about hearing the Polish language on the train, stuff like that’, as ‘upsetting, when there’s such a rich culture in Poland of music, art and ideas and you don’t hear of those things’. The Polish Violin is one way of bringing our attention to it, although she stresses, ‘I don’t ever go on stage feeling I’m doing something to manipulate. I only think I’m there to be of service, in a way, to heal. I feel music is a healing thing rather than anything else in times of political upheaval.’
Her account, with pianist Petr Limonov, pivots around the emergence of Szymanowski into a romantic, virtuoso tradition embodied on the disc by three other composers. ‘I felt that the Wieniawski, Moszkowski and Karłowicz – especially Karłowicz – are part of a world that still feels that it’s looking back. And with Szymanowski you feel the presence of these composers and then he branches out and looks forward. Of course you could do it the other way and start with the Mythes and have other more modern composers taking things forward.’
That accounts for the lack of the likes of Bacewicz, Penderecki and Lutosławski on this particular survey. But Pike insists that the Mythes, headily rhapsodic pieces that Szymanowski wrote in 1921, are contrast enough. I ask if Szymanowski’s forward-looking music gives up its secrets readily to the performer. ‘Oh no, it’s a long journey. Especially with the Mythes. The third especially is a real challenge for the audience and the performers. It’s kind of intangible, this mystical world which is very hard to uncover so when you come to look at this for the first time it’s like another language. It’s fascinating to look at the score – I want to show people what it looks like because it’s just fantastic, kind of like his pen has stopped working and he’s scattered these ink blots on the page. It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it. I wonder about the compositional process: was it easy for him? Did it come naturally or was it very difficult to write? He called it “a new form of expression”, so he knew what he was doing.’
Pike includes his Romance and Nocturne and Tarantella as a link to the older style, pieces new to her that she calls ‘a kind of mind-blowing discovery. The Romance is really interesting because he’s still writing in his romantic phase but he’s just pushing the boundaries so you can really hear the harmonies getting more and more strange.’
In that older vein, she has a particular soft spot for (Mieczysław) Karłowicz, partly because he died in an accident in the Tatra Mountains that she knew from childhood visits to the region. ‘Discovering Karłowicz, the Symphonic Poems and all this other music, through this Impromptu (a new discovery for me), I was blown away. I think he should really be better known. It’s so tragic that he isn’t – a lot of his music was lost in World War Two and he was only 32 when he died. He was a lover of skiing and taking pictures of the mountains. Especially the middle section of this piece, it just feels like these panoramic views. It’s an almost Elgarian piece.’
What has she discovered of the Polish characteristics of the music on the disc? ‘It’s very intense; the Polish character is very serious but yet there are moments of real nostalgia or melancholy – they have this word żal that is quite difficult to translate. It’s kind of a deep melancholy and sorrow, which permeates this disc. A lot of it is virtuoso writing, really at the forefront of violin playing. Polish music always has been: you have these great figures like Wieniawski really pushing the boundaries of violin technique. And then, from a musical point of view, it’s just very dark. That’s just the Polish character. There’s this history, of course, of suffering in the country so I feel that very much in the art and music.’