Szymanowski Music Competition 2018: Violin Finals – Day One

I’m in Katowice in Poland for the final stages in the Szymanowski Music Competition, to record a podcast, produce some video for social media and write some blog posts about the event. The weather is unseasonably warm and time at a premium. So my blogs will be brief.

Last night was the first of two violin finals – the second is tonight. There are four other categories in the competition – piano, composition, voice, and string quartet.

More than 100 participants (of which there were thirty-four violinists) have performed in the competition. From the two day second stage second stage, six soloists were selected to perform two concertos (each!) on two consecutive days with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in the nearby NOSPR Concert Hall (which is gorgeous by the way).

The competition concludes with a gala concert and the announcement of the first prize across all categories on Sunday. 

The shift from bingeing on piano music last week at the Leeds to listening to 6 concertos in concert has been slightly surreal. Though some general observations emerged during the first final for me last night. First, that a concerto for a pianist is in some respects less of a battle with an orchestra than for an instrument where its voice runs the risk of blending with the other orchestration. Some of the soloistic material was slightly lost in the mix last night which is, of course, part of the competition process. 

After seeing Mario Haring in Leeds last week, I’ve become attuned to the non-performance cues a soloistic gives off during a work. The position of the soloist in relation to the orchestra has considerably more impact on me than I realised. It’s a really subtle thing as well. Too close and there’s a hint that you’re not being bold enough. Half a metre too far away from the orchestra and you look a bit distant. And maintaining eye contact with the players behind you at various points – even if its a glance in their direction – conveys a sense that you’re all in this together. 

I’ve discovered a new work which I am, in the space of only a few hours, completely obsessed by: Szymanowski’s first violin concerto. It’s part Debussy, part Schoenberg. Heady. Ravishing with a hint of menace underpinning it. Come to think of it, the second violin concerto isn’t all that bad either. Can’t imagine why I haven’t stumbled on them before now. 

Two stand-out violinists from last night for me. Maya Levy (Belgium, 21): who plays with such attitude; demonstrative player; engaging to watch; a strong clear tone; seems to pull every sound out of the instrument. And, Sławomira Wilga (Poland, 24) who played the Szymanowski second violin concerto: balletic; contorted; ever so slightly dark too; plays with a bright crystal clear tone.