Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was written in the border town of Zarudzie during the First World War. It was a moment when the composer still recalled his awe at the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape and the magnificence of Italian culture, but now found himself engulfed in a historical storm that would soon annihilate the idyllic world of his youth. The works penned at that time reflect a kind of escapism towards the lands of sublime musical sensuality. In a letter to Stefan Spiess, Szymanowski declared “...I am very content with the whole thing – again some new notes, and at the same time a return to old ones. The whole is absolutely fantastic and unexpected”. The brilliant concerto marks the creative apogee of that period and critics and listeners alike still enthuse over the originality of its form and texture, the subtlety of its sound, and its unusual, oneiric aura.
1901 was a special year for Gustav Mahler. The charismatic conductor and composer, who had both devoted admirers and ardent critics, was at the peak of his creative powers as director of the Vienna State Opera. Unbearable stress and overwork had triggered a crisis in Mahler’s health, leading him to spend his summer holiday in a villa by the picturesque Wörthersee in Carinthia. This sensitive man who had come close to death felt a growing urge to put his thoughts and experiences in writing – it was at this time that he penned two harrowing works: Kindertotenlieder and the first fragments of his Fifth Symphony, which began with a funeral march pregnant with tragedy and pathos. The third movement in this powerful work is Adagietto, scored for string ensemble and harp only. This relatively short section captivates the listener with its mood of bliss, seraphic calm, and euphony, and at the same time is teeming with emotion, resembling in its musical gestures a declamatory arioso. This astonishing and delightful piece has also become a symphonic miniature, eagerly performed as a stand-alone piece. Willem Mengelberg recalled that this episode echoed the love that Mahler bestowed upon his future wife, Alma Schindler, in the crucial year of 1901. The popularity of Adagietto grew even more after it featured in Visconti’s famous film Death in Venice (1971).