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Graźyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Music for Chamber Orchestra - Volume 1
Divertimento for string orchestra (1965) [7.48]; Piano Quintet No 1 (transcription for piano and string orchestra) (1952) [24.27]; Concerto for string orchestra (1948) [14.23]
Bartłomiej Kominek (piano)
Radom Chamber Orchestra/Maciej Żóltowski
rec. Concert Studio S-1 of Poland Radio, Warsaw, December 2008
DUX 0691 [46.45]
Experience Classicsonline

It was back in 1994 I think, that I first came across and purchased a CD of Bacewicz. This was her Third Symphony on Koch (3-1143-2 nla) coupled with the Concerto for String Orchestra also recorded here. Both works I have revisited in preparing this review. I also found that I had preserved Arnold Whittall's review for the 'Gramophone' magazine. He commented in relation to both works - but especially the concerto - that each piece 'takes itself too seriously. and the kind of earnest neo-classical exercise that can still give pupils of Nadia Boulanger a bad name'. He also says that we should be 'exploring her later works' which only applies to one of the works on this new CD.

Just in case you think that Whittall got out of bed on the wrong side that morning then I will quote from the interesting booklet notes compiled by Agnieszka Jez. This is the composer writing to her brother: 'I do not believe in inspiration; for me composing is like sculpting in stone rather than putting on paper the sounds of my imagination.' Later she goes on: 'This is because I make a assumption that, just as there will be no construction built from stones that we placed chaotically or thrown onto a pile … in a musical piece there have to be laws of construction which will allow the music to stand on its own feet.'

Perhaps this also a reflection of Stravinsky who said that music is 'incapable of expressing anything other than itself.' Will this do for modern listeners? Let's attend now to these three works.

The 'Divertimento' is in three very short movements. Jez writes that 'the architecture of the work's three movements also draws on early Classical compositions.' She continues, 'The refined sound effects obtained thanks to the application of different variants of performance techniques are of particular interest' and 'truly masterful bravado instrumentation'. Well, I hear, right from the start with its upward glissandi a Bartokian influence. There's also a touch of Shostakovich, and nothing remotely classical. However I do agree with Arnold Whittall that if this brief piece is a typical example of her late work, then it worth hearing.

The 'Concerto for string orchestra' is an athletic Stravinskian outburst, except for the quite moving middle movement. We read in the liner-note that 'Stefan Kieslowski, an expert on Bacewicz, sees similarities with Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto'. The first movement is cast in early sonata-form and the third is full of energy in 6/8 with uneven accents. Lutoslawski wrote that 'I particularly like the thick, somewhat bitter harmonies which envelop the finale's secondary theme.' I have discovered more in this piece and much prefer this performance to the under-rehearsed one on Koch by Roland Bader at the Staatsphilharmonie of Krakau.

I was much moved by the longest, the middle work on the disc: the Piano Quintet No 1, in a transcription for string orchestra and piano. It is in four movements with a contemplative, somewhat mournful introduction marked 'Moderato molto espressivo' - surely not just a sound sculpture! After 1:45 the piano leads off a spiky Allegro for the remaining five minutes of its length with just an occasional turn to a romantic subject second idea. A brief and fresh-aired Presto ensues which is followed by a rather severe, but heart-felt Grave led by the piano in massive chords. These soon become the accompaniment to the violin's yearning almost canonic melody. The finale is marked 'con passione', with its strong first subject and its cello-led second subject in something of a lullaby style. These two ideas are simultaneously exploited for the next five minutes.

I cannot fault the performances nor the sensitive direction of the little-known Radom Chamber Orchestra by the thirty-eight year old Maciej Żóltowski who handles the slow music especially well. Pianist Bartłomiej Kominek plays eloquently and demonstrates a firm handling of the style alongside a sure touch and ability to balance well with the strings. What I cannot forgive with this disc is its totally ungenerous length. OK so this is volume 1, but will volume 2 also be of similar duration? I am not sure, as I write, if this disc is full price or mid-price. What with the potentially second-rate nature of the compositions and the measly duration I cannot wax enthusiastic about this disc. Let's hope that volume 2 proves to be of more value both musically and in the wallet.

Gary Higginson  


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