Wanda Wiłkomirska obituary

Violinist who specialised in the works of her Polish compatriots

The great Polish violinist Wanda Wiłkomirska, who has died aged 89, was especially associated with the repertoire of her compatriots Karol Szymanowski, Krzysztof Penderecki – who write his Capriccio for her in 1967 – and Grażyna Bacewicz. She was also an advocate of other 20th-century repertoire, notably of Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith, and felt an affinity with the British composers Frederick Delius, whom she considered an English Szymanowski, recording his three violin sonatas, and Benjamin Britten.

A recording of a 1967 performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Witold Rowicki, won the German Critics’ award in 2012, as well as praise from Rob Cowan of Gramophone, who described Wiłkomirska as a distinguished exponent of the Britten: “She was clearly on top form … [and] movingly persuasive in the work’s many lyrical passages.”

A teacher, Irena Dubiska, once told her: “Wanda, if you cannot play well, play beautifully.” Wiłkomirska’s playing, on a violin made in 1734 by Pietro Guarneri of Venice, was intuitive, musical, silken-toned and conveyed musical structure – important in the playing of contemporary music.

Wiłkomirska was an international violinist of the highest level. In 1976 she played the Britten with the LSO at the Royal Festival Hall under Erich Leinsdorf, and later with the Royal Philharmonic and Hans Vonk (1981). She also performed at the Edinburgh festival under Kurt Masur. Her worldwide partnerships included performing with Leonard Bernstein, Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini and Zubin Mehta, and with the Cleveland, Hallé, Royal Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic orchestras.

Wanda Wiłkomirska playing Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Niklaus Wyss in 1983

Wiłkomirska made two appearances at the Proms: in 1967 performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jan Krenz; and returning in 1983, after her defection from Poland, to play Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra and Charles Groves.

Under Poland’s postwar communist regime Wiłkomirska was regarded as a cultural ambassador and given a fair amount of freedom to travel abroad. In a 1998 interview she recalled: “I joined the party, I never deny it. But just as I openly waved a red flag, with the same openness I went to the opposition after many years.”

In 1952 she had married the party member Mieczysław Rakowski, who eventually became prime minister in 1988, but in 1976 she was among the many artists and intellectuals who opposed restrictive amendments to the constitution. She encouraged Rakowski to soften his views, but they divorced the following year, and, after martial law was imposed in 1981, she defected, first to Germany and then to Australia.

Daughter of Dorota Temkin and Alfred Wiłkomirski, she was born in Warsaw into a musical family, and had little choice but to join in. Alfred taught at the Warsaw Conservatory and had three children, Kazimierz, Michał and Maria, from his first marriage, who performed as a trio. Kazimierz was the director of the Polish music school in Gdansk. Dorota was a piano teacher and her son, Wanda’s brother Josef, became a conductor, cellist and composer, who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Wanda started the violin at a young age with her father, who taught her the exercises of Otakar Ševčík from his famous “method”.

She then studied at the Academy of Music in Łódź, from where she graduated in 1947. She moved to the Ferenc Lizst Music Academy in Budapest and came under the influence of Ede Zathureczky, a pupil of the Hungarian virtuoso Jenő Hubay, whom Wiłkomirska described as a “pedagogical genius”. She then turned to lessons with Henryk Szeryng, whom she met during a visit to Paris.

She gathered various prizes (Geneva 1946, Budapest 1949, second in Leipzig’s International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in 1950) and gave her Wigmore Hall debut in 1951, before sharing second prize with Julian Sitkovetsky (Igor Oistrakh came first) in the Henryk Wieniawski violin competition in Poznán in 1952, playing Szymanowski’s First Concerto.

Wiłkomirska subsequently performed this concerto with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Witold Rowicki for the opening in 1955 of the rebuilt Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall. It was this performance that led to her close association with both Szymanowski concertos and many of his other small pieces and pointed the way towards performing with this same orchestra and repertoire in the US.

Wiłkomirska liked visiting small venues and playing for audiences without access to major centres. If there was no piano, she would play on her own, her programmes including solo works by JS Bach, Hindemith and Bartók. “I have the big cities,” she said. “I have all those Londons and New Yorks, Berlins and Moscows. But I can’t forget the little cities where I played when I was young and unknown.”

Recordings were largely for the American label Connoisseur Society, and included a wide variety of chamber music.

After leaving Poland, Wiłkomirska combined her concert playing with teaching and held positions first in Germany at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Mannheim, and then, after moving to Australia in 1999, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Australian National Academy of Music, in Melbourne. She also served as a jury member on a number of international competitions. But although she had performed widely outside Poland before her defection, she found it difficult to re-establish her reputation in the later part of her career.

In 1990 she returned to Poland for the Warsaw Autumn and a performance of her fellow émigré Andrzej Panufnik’s Violin Concerto. She confessed how nervous she had been in advance of the audience response, but in the event she was welcomed enthusiastically. In recent years she returned to live in Poland.

She is survived by her two sons, Wlodzimierz and Artur.

• Jolanta Wanda Wiłkomirska, violinist, born 11 January 1929; died 1 May 2018


Anne Inglis

The GuardianTramp

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