Violin Concerto for violin and strings (perf. Krzysztof Śmietana)
The violin was an instrument that had remained close to Panufnik since childhood, so when in 1971 his friend the eminent violinist Yehudi Menuhin asked him to write a violin concerto, Panufnik was very happy and immediately set down to work.
Formally, the concerto is generally faithful to the traditional division into three movements – Rubato, Adagio, Vivace; however, the composer treats their internal structure in an original, individual manner. The “Polish atmosphere” mentioned by Panufnik in his notes is felt especially in the last movement, which uses the oberek rhythms, as well as in the lyrical and very melancholic second movement. The composition is imbued with an atmosphere of warmth and nostalgia, with purely virtuoso material clearly giving way to emotional depth and presentation of the beauty of the violin sound. In all three movements, the composer uses a very limited sound material. In Rubato the melodic-harmonic progression is based on a 3-note cell known from his previous works and composed of a minor second and a tritone. In Adagio and Vivace the composer has limited the material even further, using only major third and minor third intervals. This is how he explained his intention:
My primary consideration, I concluded, must be to display the violin as a warm expressive instrument. [...] Writing for the violin I suppose I felt the pull of my childhood memories – the smell of wood as my father constructed his instruments, and my mother’s constant playing – so that the work became a sort of pilgrimage into my past and inevitably emerged somewhat Polish in atmosphere.
This discipline served to exploit to the utmost Yehudi’s rare powers of spirituality in his interpretation, and gave him every opportunity to maximise the singing quality of the instrument. Throughout the Concerto, I consciously avoided the temptation of including purple passages of virtuoso 'pyrotechnics' (so beloved to technically adept but less profound violinists). I was composing a piece to expose the soul of the performer rather than to transform the fingerboard of the violin into a gymnasium for bouncing fingers.
Indeed, the composer showed to the full the depth of expression and the beauty of exquisite violin sounds, additionally emphasizing them – and deepening them – by means of the homogenous colour of the string orchestra accompanying the soloist. Though it does not try to dazzle the listeners with excessive virtuosity, it would be hard to regard the Violin Concerto as an unattractive piece, which is also evidenced by the fact that it is among Panufnik’s most frequently performed works. On the contrary, the sophisticated sound world of the composition seduces the listener with its beauty and warmth from the first note to the last.
Undoubtedly, Panufnik was hugely inspired in writing his Violin Concerto by Yehudi Menuhin’s mastery, but the composer included so many personal feelings and emotions in the work that after finishing it, he decided that he could dedicate it only to his wife, Camilla. Not wanting to offend Menuhim, however, who after all had commissioned the Concerto, he told him about his doubts. The violinist not only generously agreed to the work being dedicated to Camilla, but also dedicated his performance to her.