Grazyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Violin Concerto No.4 (1951) [26:43]
Violin Concerto No.5 (1954) [22:47]
Violin Concerto No.2 (1945) [31:00]
Joanna Kurkowicz (violin)
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lukasz Borowicz
rec. Witold Lutoslawski Concert Hall, Polish Radio, Warsaw, 8, 10 November 2010. DDD
Booklet notes in English, French and German
CHANDOS CHAN10673 [80:51]
Until just a few years ago, the name of Grazyna Bacewicz was all but unknown outside her native Poland, save for a few ‘in-the-know’ violinists. Her Concerto for Strings had the occasional rare outing, but of the remainder of her output nothing was heard. Her music is now enjoying something of a revival, with several excellent recording having been released in the last two or three years. Bacewicz was actually the sister of composer Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-1970), who identified himself as Lithuanian rather than Polish; the family being of mixed Polish-Lithuanian ancestry. In Polish musical history, both chronologically and stylistically, Bacewicz neatly bridges the gap between the heady late-Romantic exoticism of Karol Szymanowski and the more modern musical world of Witold Lutoslawski. Bacewicz was a leading figure in Polish musical life as a composer, violinist and teacher and she remains revered in her home country to this day. She was one of the many young composers who travelled to Paris to study with the great Nadia Boulanger and it is possible – to my ears at least – to detect the influence of Gallic neo-classicism in most of her early and middle-period works.
Her seven violin concertos cover the period 1937 to 1965 and the recordings on Chandos were the brainchild of the soloist on this CD, Joanna Kurkowicz, who recognised the quality of these works and wanted to expose them to a wider audience. The concertos on this very full CD (just under 81 minutes) date from the years 1945-54. Chandos chose to present the first CD (CHAN10533) of Bacewicz’s violin concertos back-to-front, starting with the seventh (admittedly the most popular in Poland, but the hardest nut to crack of all the concertos), following it with the third, then the first and, lastly an overture. Curious! This CD begins with No.4, then No.5, finishing with No.2. I don’t understand why the material can’t just be presented in a sensible chronological order; listeners can programme for themselves how they might like to listen to it. I will review the concertos in numerical order.
The Second Violin Concerto, like its immediate predecessor from 1937, has a strong tang of Neo-Classicism from the very outset, with driving, bustling music of the sort that is characteristic of Bacewicz. This concerto is by far the longest of all the violin concertos, with the first movement the most extended movement in any of the six available (No.6 remains in manuscript and has never been performed), complete with a particularly extended Romantic cadenza. The Romantic affiliations are continued the lovely second movement which, for me, betrays the influence of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, albeit subsumed in Bacewicz’s own personal style. There is much lyrical writing and a feeling of stillness that serves as a nice contrast to the animation of the movements which surround it.
In her commentary in the excellent booklet, Joanna Kurkowicz singles out the
Fourth violin Concerto as the pivotal work on this CD, describing it as “quite
a monumental character: it is a full-fledged symphonic work…”. This work was
written when the composer was a the peak of her powers and during the same
year (1951) wrote eight other works, including the prize-winning Fourth String
Quartet, the Symphony No.2, the first of her cello concertos and the Fifth
Violin Sonata. Kurkowicz sees this as the most ‘virtuosic’ of the three concertos
on this disc, with each movement including a short cadenza and with
much technically challenging solo writing. The musical language has moved
on in the six years since the earlier Second Concerto, with brooding Slavic
Romanticism taking over from Neo-Classicism. Harmonies are denser and more
dissonant, but never intimidating; 1950s Poland was not immune to calls from
the Communist government for composers to adopt ‘socialist realism’ and this
work treads a fine but well-judged line between traditionalism and modernism.
Having premiered the first four of her own violin concertos, Bacewicz never played the Fifth. An injury suffered from a motoring accident forced her retirement from professional performing in 1954 and it fell to Wanda Wilkomirska to give the premiere of No.5 in 1955. The musical language has moved on again, with more strident harmonies and a more compact structure. After a suitably forceful, muscular and astringent first movement, the Andante is truly remarkable in its harmonic adventurousness and voluptuous orchestral colours. Quite lovely. The whole Fifth Concerto, but particularly the Vivace finale, with its constant changes of metre and lean orchestral writing, brings to mind some of Lutoslawski’s earliest orchestral works which were closely contemporaneous with the Fifth Concerto (Silesian Triptych, Symphonic Variations, Symphony No.1) and gives a foretaste of Bacewicz’s even more adventurous musical language to follow in later works.
For those who enjoy other mid-20th-century violin concertos such as those by Barber, Bartók, Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, this CD will give great enjoyment coupled with a fascinating voyage of discovery, especially with such committed, musical and well-recorded performances as will be found on this Chandos CD. The booklet notes by Polish-music expert Adrian Thomas are full and very informative, with Kurkowicz’s appendix lending added insights from the performer’s point of view. Why these concertos don’t enjoy greater currency is, frankly, beyond me, as concert programmes would be the richer for their inclusion.
Why these concertos don’t enjoy greater currency is beyond me; concert programmes would be the richer for their inclusion.