Interview: Jennifer Pike
Since winning the coveted BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2002 at the age of 12, Jennifer Pike has been making music of virtuosity, curiosity and verve. Her recent release on Chandos 'The Polish Violin' sees her exploring her heritage, and that of the violin amongst Polish composers. We asked Jennifer about the experiences and discoveries which contributed to the album.
Listen to The Polish Violin now, on Primephonic.
Is this the first time you’ve been compelled to really explore this Polish repertoire? How did you come to discover these composers?
I think it’s always been a part of my will to do this music. I just really loved the idea of exploring more of my Polish side and Polish character. My mum is Polish and my grandparents still live in South Poland. I always visited them when I was young and still do every few years. I remember hearing my grandparents talk about Karłowicz when we were walking in the Tatra Mountains, where he lost his life, and the stone that marks the place where he was found after an avalanche. I didn’t really know about his music until a few years ago and then I made that connection, of course, this is the composer my grandparents were talking about while we were walking!
Wieniawski is a composer that you really get excited about as a violinist. Most violinists do – he’s this revered name. I remember being about 9 or 10 when I first heard about him so it’s really special after all those years to come back to a piece like Légende or Polonaise de concert, but then there are new discoveries too. Szymanowski was something of a well-kept secret for a long time, and even though he now has a lot more international recognition there’s so much of his music which is rarely played. I first played his violin sonata a few years ago which really made me interested in his music – that piece is a totally different sound-world. I think he called it “a new era for violin writing of epoch-making significance” so he knew what he was doing when he was writing those!
Were there any composers you had to leave out who you would have liked to explore?
It was really difficult to narrow it down because there is so much repertoire out there that is so interesting and not really well known, so there might be The Polish Violin 2 coming soon! Grażyna Bacewicz is one composer we had to leave out – a violinist-composer who has written a huge amount – 7 violin concertos and symphonies and so much more – but we never hear her music. There’s a lot out there, and I think people are beginning to be more interested and think “hang on, there’s a lot more than just the standard repertoire we hear most of the time that we could discover.”
Do you feel like this project has brought you closer to the Polish side of your family, and musical life?
Yes, it feels really nice to have done something like this that’s been a really personal journey. I do go back to Poland a lot, but a really special thing happened a few months ago in November when I went to play in Katowice at the Szymanowski Academy of Music, where I met about ten members of my Polish family that I’d never met before! It was so lovely that this concert brought two sides of our family together, and it was really an amazing experience on a personal level. My dad also studied composition with Henryk Górecki in Katowice at that academy, so it was lovely to see where he studied, and I played some of his music and some music by Górecki’s son.
I discovered this amazing partita by Eugeniusz Knapik a while ago during a Polish music day at the Wigmore Hall, and he is actually the head of composition at the academy in Katowice, so I got to meet him at the end of that recital too – I didn’t know he was in the audience! So yes, just speaking to composers and mixing with the Polish music scene has been really fantastic and I hope to do more of it.
Would you say there are any key traits to Polish music, even across so many different periods and different composers and styles?
Definitely, yes. One thing that is particularly noticeable is the intensity, searing intensity at times. It’s definitely something that I feel unites Polish composers across the centuries. The character is really brimming on the surface, and so it’s interesting to get to explore that in contrast to my English side, which is more reserved. I think there’s also a real tradition of violinist composers in Poland, and even composers that don’t play the violin seem to have this amazing understanding of the instrument. I feel all Polish music really takes the instrument to the edge of what it can do, or to the edge of what violinists can do with it. The Szymanowski “Myths” for example, are almost unplayable at times. There are double stops, quarter tones, double trills etc., and that’s something I noticed in a lot of Polish music. From the harmonic point of view too, there are moments when I’m listening to the radio and I don’t know what the piece is, but if it’s a Polish piece there’s something about it I can recognise. This fascination with 3rds, irregular phrasing, and things which aren't quite what you’d expect rhythmically. Perhaps the folk tradition of Poland might be a real influence there. The folk tradition is very strong, so you can hear something even in music that hasn’t been directly inspired by the folk tradition.
Listen to The Polish Violin now, on Primephonic.