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Vaughan Williams, Grazyna Bacewicz, Szymanowski, Andrzej Panufnik and Prokofiev: Caroline MacPhie (soprano), Natalia Brzezinska (mezzo soprano), Gerard Collett (baritone), New London Chorus, New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp, Cadogan Hall, London, 14.10.2009 (BBr)

Vaughan Williams: Overture: The Wasps (1909)
Grazyna Bacewicz: Simfonietta (1935) (UK première)
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater (1924/1925)
Andrzej Panufnik: Old Polish Suite (1950)
Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D, Classical, op.25 (1916/1917)

TheWasps Overture failed to take off tonight – there was insufficient vim and vigour in the performance, but, oddly enough, there was an excess of it in the Classical Symphony which ended the programme; this was a lively, and perfectly pointed, performance, full of Haydnesque wit and jollity. It was a lovely way to end the show.

But with all due respect to those great composers, it wasn’t their music we’d come to hear. This concert was sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute and forms part of PL: A Year of Contemporary Everything from Poland, and it was a real treat to hear these three Polish works – even if two of them aren’t really characteristic of their composers.

Grazyna Bacewicz was born 100 years ago this year and she was a virtuoso violinist, who led the Polish radio Orchestra until a car accident finished her performing career. She had always composed and after studies at home she went to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger. Here she started writing in a neo classical style, but these early pieces give no hint that, like her great contemporary Roberto Gerhard, she would, in the final ten years of her life – she died in 1969 – blossom into a leader of the avant garde with such masterworks as Pensieri notturni (1961) and the Concertos for orchestra (1962), two pianos (1966), and Viola (1968). This early Symfonietta (the spelling comes from Bacewicz’s own manuscript) starts with a wrong note cadence then it’s French froth, filtered through Stravinsky. The slow movement is a little darker and it contains a depth of feeling lacking elsewhere. A delightful work but not representative of this great composers work. Her music has never caught on in this country and it’s hard to understand why, for at its best its colourful and energetic, with a great flair and there’s a lot of it – seven Violin Concertos, four Symphonies, seven String Quartets five Violin Sonatas and much more. Much of this work was available on Muza LPs but these are, unfortunately, long deleted and the CD catalogue hasn’t yet caught up with her output. The New London Orchestra has just released a CD of four of Bacewicz’s works but the latest piece, the superb Music for strings, three trumpets and percussion (1958), ever so slightly pre–dates her astounding final period. We need to hear the final works to fully understand and appreciate the stature of this astonishing woman. Despite my desire to encounter some more challenging Bacewicz, it was, nonetheless, good to hear such a delightful work as this in such a fine performance.

The Old Polish Suite was Panufnik’s answer to Zhdanov’s decree that Polish music should follow the idea of Soviet realism. It’s five short movements are Panufnik’s “intention to bring alive the spirit of Poland…and to make use of these precious fragments which otherwise would have remained lifeless on the bookshelves of libraries…” Old Polish Music can be seen as a more restrained Capriol Suite and it’s an interesting sidelight on a major Symphonist, who didn’t dabble in lighter music.

The prize of the evening was a very fine performance of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. Sitting between his two major styles, rich late romanticism – as heard in the 1st Violin Concerto and 3rdSymphony – and folk inspired works – Harnasie, the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra and the 2ndViolin Concerto – this is a very interesting piece, showing, as it does, that he could have trod the neo classical path quite comfortably. Corp’s three young soloists were perfect for the work, I was especially impressed by Natalia Brzezinska’s fruity, but never ripe, mezzo, and Caroline MacPhie was radiant and Gerard Collett authoritative. Corp’s own choir sang well and gave ample support to the soloists.

All in all, perhaps this wasn’t quite the concert it could have been – I would have preferred a little more seriousness; Panufnik’s Sinfonia Concertante (4thSymphony) for flute, harp and strings would have fitted the scheme of things admirably – but I mustn’t carp for there was much to enjoy tonight, and much for many to discover.

Bob Briggs  

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