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Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Complete Works for String Quartet: Vol. 1
String Quartet No. 4 (1951) [20:28]
Piano Quintet No. 1 (1952) [24:06]
String Quartet No. 7 (1965) [15:49]
Amar Corde String Quartet (Barbara Stuhr (Violin 1); Boguslawa Ziegelheim (Violin 2); Beata Ploska (Viola); Agata Zając (Cello))
rec. January 1999, Filharmonia Krakowska, Poland. DDD

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Bacewicz, little known outside Poland, the country of her birth, composed quite a wide range of chamber music, from string quartets, to piano quintets, to works for wind quintet and various instruments with piano. Acte Préalable has represented her work well, with no fewer than six discs showcasing her music.

The first of three volumes of Bacewicz’s works for string quartet begins with perhaps her best known work for chamber ensemble: her fourth string quartet. This alternates between themes that sound folk-like — the jig-like hopping of the cello part in the second theme of the first movement — to more nocturnal episodes. While there is a constant calling up of folksy sounds and themes, the piece still sounds thoroughly modern.

The hovering second movement picks up on the nocturnal element with repeated notes on open strings. The second theme reminds one of Prokofiev’s more pensive moments in his own string quartets. A slowly rising and falling chromatic line follows as the main theme is traded off from part to part. The joyous third movement begins with the overall aspect of a piece from Prokofiev’s ballet music — both happy and with tongue in cheek. The folk echoes remains in the strummed cello parts, often using fifths and fourths.

Especially interesting is the first piano quintet written a year later. This begins with a slow introduction. A sudden change to a faster tempo seems to indicate a new theme, but instead is a sped-up repetition of the first theme, originally accompanied by a rising chromatic scale in the piano, now supported by chords. The second theme — both themes are essentially chromatic in nature - is heralded by the cello. The melody of the first line of this second theme doesn’t extend beyond a major third, but Bacewicz makes such minute themes memorable — beyond that, she makes them sing.

The scherzo second movement reminds one of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Op. 110, only not as grimly sarcastic. The theme certainly sounds not far removed from Shostakovich’s DSCH motif. There is a pensive moment where the listener is reminded of the first theme — here apparently played backwards, before the playfulness returns and one is treated to a section that sounds as if Astor Piazzolla has suddenly taken over the reins!

The third movement is more darkly introspective. The mood is set immediately by the piano, from which the quartet build. Again one hears the sustained notes encountered in the fourth quartet. What follows is a section of uneasy beauty that calls to mind various aspects of Shostakovich’s later quartets composed ten to twenty years later. This is a lovely moment that the Amar Corde quartet performs beautifully. The repeated notes toward the end of the movement mark off time - or, as in Schnittke, a heartbeat? - as the music slows to stasis. The frenetic opening to the last movement shatters the mood and brings us back to the jibing sarcastic side of Shostakovich. This is one of Bacewicz’s finest hours, and it is a pity this piece isn’t more widely known or performed.

The following work, the seventh quartet, composed in 1965, occupies a far different musical world than the rather closely-related pieces already encountered. Bacewicz pulls new sounds from the quartet, with whistles and skidding glissandi. The emphasis here is more on sound rather than the more conventional idea of theme and development. As avant-garde as this piece sounds, it still fits well within the trend set by her other quartets, all but two of which are in three movements of fast-slow-fast tempo. The piece speaks its narrative lines with an assured voice but for me the main draw here is the piano quintet, which is a truly fully-realized work.

The recording quality on this disc is very good and the Amar Corde quartet play with the assurance these pieces require. These are works of high quality and uncompromising nature.

David Blomenberg

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