Saturday 5 January 2019

Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc

Jennifer Pike (Photo Arno)
Jennifer Pike (Photo Arno)
With her latest recording, violinist Jennifer Pike has been rediscovering her Polish roots. The Polish Violin is a programme of music by Karol Szymanowski, Moritz Moszkowski, Mieczyslaw Karłowicz, and Henryk Wieniawski on Chandos. But the programme is more than a musical exploration, as it connects Jennifer with her Polish grand-parents (Jennifer's mother is Polish) and brings out the importance of European connections at a time when political events make things difficult. I recently met up with Jennifer to talk more about the disc and about her Polish connections. In fact, Jennifer had recently played a concert in Katowice in Poland when she met 10 of her Polish family for the first time.

In the last few years, Jennifer has been keen to get in touch with her Polish side and has been exploring the wealth of violin and piano repertoire by Polish composers, pieces which have very much lain undiscovered in Western Europe. Whilst the works by Wienawski on the disc (Legende, Polonaise No. 1) are very much the sound-track to her life, others are discoveries. She has found the Mieczyslaw Karłowicz Impromptu a real discovery, one of a number of works which are just being discovered, and many were lost during World War Two. Karłowicz died young in the Tatra Mountains in an avalanche, and her grand-parents told her about it and they walked past the plaque to Karłowicz when she visited the Tatra Mountains when young.

Tatra Mountains, Poland (View from above Morskie Oko)
Tatra Mountains, Poland (View from above Morskie Oko)
So much music from composers like Karłowicz remains buried, the scores and parts difficult to get hold of (in fact this is a problem with which Jennifer is familiar as she has record the Miklos Rosza violin concerto but orchestras find it difficult sourcing the parts). But the music we do have for Karłowicz is wonderful. As the Tatra Mountains were his homeland, Jennifer hears the panoramic views of the landscape in his music, an area she walked a lot when she was a youngster and his music makes her feel connected to this scenery. Karłowicz's Impromptu (which is on the disc) is very much in his late Romantic style, whereas other works by him such as his late orchestral piece Eternal Songs are in a more adventurous style. And whilst Tchaikovsky is clearly an inspiration, he is very imaginative. Next on Jennifer's list is Karłowicz's Violin Concerto which she is keen to perform.

The disc opens with Szymanowski's Mythes, the first one of which is the most famous in violin circles and is the most accessible of them. Jennifer feels that Szymanowski's writing sounds so modern that it is hard to grasp, and the last movement was described by the composers as a new form of expression for the violin.

Szymanowski's Violin Sonata is another work in Jennifer's repertoire (one she would love to record), and she first played this before she had played Mythes which was the correct historical order so she was able to appreciate the changes to his style. Another reason for making The Polish Violin disc is to encourage others, Jennifer hopes that this music will be played more and more. Szymanowski's Romance (also on the disc) is a work in which we hear him getting into his adventurous new sound world, adventurous and strange. The last Szymanowski piece on the disc, Chant de Roxanne, is arranged from his opera King Roger by the violinist Pavel Kochansky, who played Szymanowski's Mythes.

Jennifer Pike at the Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland
Jennifer Pike at the
Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland
She describes much of the music on the disc as dark, yet optimistic which she feels reflects the Polish character. Much of the music is poignant and melancholy, and Jennifer uses the Polish word zal. She comments that it is nice to explore both sides to her character, the reserved British and the more tempestuous Polish, and she has observed the differences between both sides of her family. This makes Jennifer wonder about her own personality, whilst she did fit in at her English school she was aware she was a little bit different, yet in Poland she was not 100% Polish. This is one of the challenges, she feels, of having dual nationality, and she is hoping to have a continuing connection to Europe and her Polish passport will be useful for European travel post-Brexit.

Growing up Jennifer was very aware that mother was Polish, she spoke the language and they visited Jennifer's Polish grand-parents in the Tatra Mountains every few years. In fact, Jennifer communicates with her grand-parents in Polish, a language that she wants to get better at. And in the Tatra Mountains there was so much tradition to get immersed in.

But she did not know how much her parents had been through, till she was much older. There were anecdotes, but she did not initially grasp the realities of life under Communism in Poland. A lot of her Mum's history lessons were politically skewed, and her mother had watched the tanks going through Poland. Jennifer's grand-father was a miner at the time and was placed under great pressure by the Communist regime.

Jennifer became gradually aware of the problems, and became impressed by the bravery of her parents. Her father is the composer Jeremy Pike and he received a scholarship to study in Katowice in Poland with Henryk Gorecki. There Jeremy Pike met Teresa and they were married. When he left Poland his wife was meant to follow, but they were separated by the declaration of martial law. So the couple could only communicate via letters send in diplomatic pouches, and even then they were censored by the Polish authorities.

All this made Jennifer aware of borders and traveling difficulties, things which apply to the present political situations. Jennifer, who was born the day the Berlin Wall came down, finds it scary and unbelievable that such difficulties from her parents younger days could repeat themselves in the present.

Jennifer Pike - The Polish Violin - Chandos
There was a piano at home when Jennifer was growing up, and she just had to make a noise on it. But there was something about the violin which struck her, something tactile. She admits that if she could sing, she would, and playing the violin seems to be the next best thing. Jennifer's mother had wanted play the piano, but was discouraged by her parents; Jennifer's grandmother had played but she had also been discouraged and had become a doctor. Jennifer adds that 'Mum got her own back by marrying a musician'!

Jennifer has played the violin from young age (she started playing at the age of five, and won BBC Young Musician when she was 12) and feels that she is lucky to have made a natural transition to being a professional violinist, only gradually realising she is doing it for a living, something that doesn't strike you when you are learning. There was never a time when she didn't want to play, making a living being creative, and her first experience of being 'tremendously happy' was playing to an audience.

That is not to say that the transition from youthful player to adult was not very hard (we discuss Ida Haendel's autobiography where she discusses her problems making the transition, and Yehudi Menuhin, who also famously had such difficulties). And at 29, Jennifer has been playing the violin a long time, with around 18 years as a professional violinist. This means that she has a strange relationship with herself and the world. As a young woman growing up, she changed quite quickly but the world's perception of her changed at a far slower rate. People like putting labels on things, and that makes it difficult for her as she grows and develops as a musician, leaving the labels behind. She adds, only half joking, that she would love to have a sprinkling of grey hair to get the message across that she has been around a lot.

But she has learned that balance is important, and that in addition to playing the violin it is important to live life a bit. This is one of the reasons that she went to Oxford for a few years to study (She graduated with First Class Honours in Music from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 2012). She was still performing, but also there were times when she was just sitting in a library reading a book. This is something she still feels passionate about, that musicians tend to be intense and need to take time out, 'to become a snowman for the winter!'.

Jennifer Pike performing in Lodz, Poland in 2016
Jennifer Pike performing in Lodz, Poland in 2016
Returning to Poland, there is still a lot of repertoire that she wants to explore. She has loved doing contemporary music by Eugeniusz Knapik, who was taught by Messiaen. Jennifer played his Partita at the Polish Music Day that she organised at the Wigmore Hall in October 2017. Jennifer has also been discovering the music of Grazyna Bacewicz, herself a fine violinist who won the Wieniawski Competition. Bacewicz's music is becoming more well known, but there are string quartets, violin concertos and symphonies. All then there is the Polish Baroque repertoire, and at the Polish Music Day Jennifer played a piece by Adam Jarzevski, with Mahan Esfahani, Elizabeth Kenny and Guy Johnston, the earliest known piece of Polish instrumental music.

Jennifer would love to discover more, to play more. Her disc The Polish Violin is out on 4 January 2019, and all she has to do now is get promoters interested!

The Polish Violin - Jennifer Pike (violin), Petr Limonov (Piano), Chandos - available from Amazon 

Jennifer Pike will be playing Saint-Saëns' Introduction et rondo capriccioso, Op. 28 at Watford Colosseum on Friday 18 January 2019 with the BBC Concert Orchestra & Anne-Maria Helsing, see Jennifer's website for full details of her performances. 

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, The Light of the World  (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholas & Peter Phillips at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Home

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