Violinist Joanna Kurkowicz provides break from standard repertoire fare


Joanna Kurkowicz played Sunday at the Phillips Collection. (The Phillips Collection)
May 12

At the Phillips Collection on Sunday, Joanna Kurkowicz, an incisive Polish violinist, offered an intriguing program of rarities — baroque, romantic and severely modern — all written during the 20th century. None stood out as unjustly neglected masterpieces, but the journey was worth the trip.

Alfred Schnittke’s “Suite in the Old Style” is, like Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” an homage to 18th-century music; five movements singing sweetly. But we all know the hammer will eventually drop from this master of harsh dissonances, and, like a distant harbinger of the future, he ends on a polytonal question. Witold Lutoslawski’s Partita (1984) is almost a repertoire piece by now, and its difficulties, for players and listeners, are fairly conventional. The music seems to leave afterimages in the mind as its repetitive patterns suddenly shift this way and that. Another partita, for solo violin by Vytautas Barkauskas, sounded like Schnittke’s normal work — cerebral and eclectic. It was also a virtuoso challenge for Kurkowicz, whose laser-like concentration made the work the focal point of the concert.

Karol Szymanowski’s lush Sonata Op. 9 closed out the afternoon. A work of impressive formal mastery and subtle thematic relationships throughout, it nonetheless left a somewhat wan impression, the material drifting by in an undifferentiated stream, like Gabriel Faure or Ernest Chausson.

Kurkowicz has a clean sound, always aware of the contact point with her bow. Her technique was equal to every hurdle the composers threw at her, but her lyrical playing lacks the sort of surging beauty that a work like the Szymanowski requires, and she sometimes landed slightly flat. Pianist Gloria Chien provided expert support throughout. This program was a nice break from the endless fare of standard repertoire we get all year.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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