Grażyna Bacewicz is still waiting to be ‘discovered’, although her music has been making more headway internationally in recent years. She was unusual in several ways. She was born in Łódź to a Lithuanian father and Polish mother, who made the radical decision to bring up their sons as Lithuanian and their daughters as Polish. Her father was the conductor Vincas Bacevicius and her brothers, Vytautas and Kęstutis Bacevičius, were respectively a composer and a pianist. Besides composition, she studied piano and violin at the Warsaw Conservatory; and it was as a concert violinist that she first made her name. After a serious car accident in 1954, she concentrated on composition and writing fiction, but she was not granted a long life.
As you might expect, much of her music features stringed instruments, and her quartets display her technical knowledge, as well as a keen and discriminating ear for sonority. You will find such string techniques as harmonics, glissando, tremolando, pizzicato and sul ponticello, but she does not make a point of them: they seem to arise naturally out of what she is trying to say. The annotator of this disc, Frank K. DeWald, tells us that she went through a number of ‘isms’ – expressionism, neo-classicism, serialism and sonorism, whatever that is. I am sure he is right, but Bacewicz’s works always show a distinct personality. If I mention other composers in what follows, it is merely to give readers a few signposts, not to suggest that she was an epigone of anyone.
This CD does not take her as far as the famous cultural thaw in Poland (see also review of Volume 1), from which she and other composers benefited. The three-movement Second Quartet is definitely neo-classical, at least in its outer movements – the first bright and cheerful, the third equally enjoyable, if a little garrulous and overlong. The central movement, clearly influenced by Szymanowski, also has chorale elements and even distant echoes of the opening fugue of Beethoven’s Op. 131; its texture is quite complex in places.
The Fourth Quartet, also in three movements, is Bacewicz’s best-known quartet. It was recognised as a masterly creation from the start and has racked up quite a few recordings. After an atmospheric slow introduction, the Allegro moderato gives a very fresh impression: the first theme has a touch of folksong to it. The Andante is deeply felt and the finale is highly rhythmical, with some of the special effects mentioned above. Even after more than sixty years and many developments in Polish music, this work still sounds new-minted.
The Fifth Quartet might be seen as a backward step, as it is in the customary four movements and is more conventional in the lay-out of each movement. No doubt Bacewicz felt the need to summarise her development up to that point, as she worked on her physical and mental rehabilitation after her accident. In its sonorities and its general feeling of assurance, the piece represents considerable progress. It opens in a rather Szymanowskian mood but by now Bacewicz is clearly aware of late Bartók. The first movement is basically in sonata form, the Scherzo is made up of two fast fugues which combine at the end, the third movement is a soulful chorale and the finale is a set of variations on a decidedly oddball theme which itself sounds like a variation on an unstated theme. This work retains its interest right up to the final coda.
I have avoided saying anything about the performances until now, because they strike me as good but not exceptional. When they were recorded, the Lutosławski Quartet had been together for only five years. They are clearly interesting players – the second violinist is a composer – but there are one or two patches of sour internal tuning and I keep feeling that they could be making more of this interesting music. Both versions of the Fourth Quartet that I pulled down off my shelves – by the Szymanowski Quartet and the ensemble named after the composer – are bigger and bolder, putting the piece across with more flair. The Lutosławskis are not helped by their recording team, who place them rather distantly. With more charismatic performances, the sound quality might seem atmospheric and alluring. As it is, it is merely rather wishy-washy.