Henryk Wieniawski, like his countryman Frédéric Chopin, was in great demand as a soloist — so much so that his performance schedule seems to have seriously impacted his work as a composer. Another prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of eight, in spite of being underage and not French. By age thirteen, he had completed his course of study on the violin (with gold medal), written his first compositions, and met Chopin at his mother’s Paris salon. After returning to the Conservatory, this time with his younger brother, the pianist Josef Wieniawski, he studied composition for two years and then began his career as a performer. The two brothers performed together for several years, becoming a well-known and highly sought-after duo.
It seems symptomatic that the works left by those composers most in demand as virtuoso performers are generally in the smaller, more intimate forms. (One wonders how Berlioz’ output would have been affected had he studied piano rather than guitar.) So with Wieniawski: his largest compositions are his violin concertos, while most of his works are smaller in scale. He was famous for his mazurkas and polonaises (being also somewhat of a Polish nationalist, he was not at all reticent about highlighting Polish traditions).
This is another case of having heard the music many times but not connecting it with the composer. There are two joint works by Henryk and Josef, the Allegro de Sonate and Grand Duo Polonaise, and four of Henryk’s solo compositions. The melodies are very familiar, probably from my habit of having a classical radio station as background music.
It is easy to see why the brothers were such a hit — this is tremendously engaging music, lyrical, melodic, with an admixture of Slavic melancholy and plenty of room for virtuoso flourishes. Piotr Janowski (another prodigy — he won the Wieniawski Prize for violin at age sixteen) and Wolfgang Plagge (who made his solo piano debut at age twelve) deliver a set of intelligent and passionate performances. There is a great range of mood in these works (Plagge, in his notes refers to the “Hassidic” inspiration for the Fantaisie Orientale, although it could come from Gypsy music just as easily), and the performers deliver each with finesse and elegance.