Vytautas BACEVIČIUS (1905-1970)
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.44 (1946/49)* [26:41]
Spring Suite, Op.64 (1958)* [17:49]
Piano concerto No.4 Symphonie Concertante, Op.67 (1962)* [24:07]
Gabrielius Alekna (piano)
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. National Philharmonic Hall of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2013
World première recordings * NAXOS 8.573282 [68:36]
Sadly, unfairly and inexplicably Vytautas Bacevičius has been overshadowed by his composer sister Grażyna Bacewicz. She retained her Polish nationality and only as recently as mid-May 2015 she featured as BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week. By contrast Bacevičius has remained in the margins despite having spent many years living in the USA until his death in 1970. As the booklet notes inform us his life was defined by exile, the first self-imposed when he left the Poland of his birth and his Polish mother and siblings to follow his Lithuanian father to live in its then capital Kaunas. Almost immediately he departed to study in Paris where he was reunited with Grażyna who was also studying there. He had dropped the Polish form of his name and adopted the Lithuanian one; Witold Bacewicz had become Vytautas Bacevičius and had set about learning as much as possible from teachers like Nicolai Tcherepnin, a pianist-composer of considerable note. He had much success in Paris playing concerts of his own and his sister’s music as well as works by composers viewed as ‘cutting edge’ in those days, including Scriabin, Szymanowski, Prokofiev and his teacher’s son Alexander Tcherepnin. He started to experience more success, however, once he began featuring more 'mainstream' composers like Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Debussy in his programmes. These were the composers that he often played when he had become exiled once again in the USA. This was after the Second World War had left him stranded during a concert tour in South America. With both Paris and Lithuania overrun by the Nazis he had no choice but to seek refuge in America where he became a stateless person whose passport was worthless.
The USA was never a country that he embraced; he felt uncomfortable there and sad that he never managed to revisit either Paris or Lithuania again. In fact in the booklet notes there are quotations from some of his outbursts concerning his opinions of the USA. These doubtless did him few favours. For example in a letter to Rabbi Milton Feist, owner of Mercury Music Corporation he wrote “In America you buy friendship with money, and disinterested friendship in the European style is unthinkable.” Nevertheless he continued to compose a considerable amount and it is pleasing to see that there are some discs of his music gradually coming out to justify his early reputation as a prodigious pianist whose music was worth listening to. The present disc Suite can only increase his following as should the Toccata Classics CD of his Complete Mots (TOCC0134) also played by the young Lithuanian pianist Gabrielius Alekna (review). There are also another five discs of his music to explore which is really good news and since this disc is marked 'Volume 1' of his orchestral works we can, I hope soon, see his other symphonies on disc. The 2nd and 6th have already been released on Toccata Classics together with his 1st piano concerto (review).
I’ve often been struck by how much of a hiatus the Second World War caused: things became frozen in time. It seems to me that this affected music too for Bacevičius’ Piano Concerto No.3, which dates from 1946/49 sounds firmly rooted in the 1930s to my ears and that suits me fine. Christopher Lyndon-Gee the booklet note writer and conductor on this disc, calls the sound “French” and the style lyrical which I have no argument with. It makes for an overall pleasing listening experience. This is not meant to be ‘feinting with damn praise’. Given the terrible immediate past that Europe had experienced and the fact that Bacevičius’ ear was still well and truly attuned to the world he’d left this concerto has a kind of innocence that is gently reassuring. The quite energetic first movement gives way to an Adagio misterioso that moves along in a dreamlike state and as Lyndon-Gee explains demonstrates the “...gentle, lyrically based atonality of Bacevičius’ early style.” If music never got much more atonal than this I would be pleased since there are plenty of ‘tunes’ in there to be enjoyed. The third and final movement reverts to the energy of the first and wraps things up nicely.
The Spring Suite of 1958 is an orchestral version of a solo piano composition from seven years previously. It was written at a time when Bacevičius was attempting to develop a more complex style. In this version he experimented with features that rendered it beyond the scope of any pianist according to Lyndon-Gee. I quote from his notes that “Two well-hidden quotations from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps are integrated with rustic Lithuanian folk melodies. The overall impression of the work is one of bubbling seething energy.” Not being able to spot the Stravinsky quotes coupled with my total ignorance of ‘rustic Lithuanian folk melodies’ did not detract from my enjoyment of the piece.
In his Fourth Piano Concerto Bacevičius begins with an Allegro misterioso that gives it an air of ethereal otherworldliness right from the start. This is understandable when you read that this work came hard on the heels of his major achievement, that of his Symphony No.6 ‘Cosmic’ of 1960 (review). It is indeed part of his “cosmic” period in which he tried to plumb the depths of his own subconscious. If it doesn’t sound too contradictory to say so I found this concerto enjoyably detached which may well have been what the composer was aiming for. He explained that: “... I searched for new creative and aesthetic ideas in my own (Universe); in this I was much helped by my subconscious, which is an inexhaustible treasure and source of previously undiscovered ideas and creative elements of abstract and tonal music.” Strangely, given that I couldn’t uncover the hidden Stravinsky reference in the Spring Suite, I thought I heard an allusion to the same in the opening of the concerto’s second movement. The concluding movement which includes direct quotations from the first rounds things off satisfyingly despite its restless nature. This concerto has the experimentation hallmarks that were often found in the music of the 1930s. In this connection my comments about the 3rd concerto also apply here. If music doesn’t look back as well as forward then it hasn’t learned from what went before.
Coming back to review this disc from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which this year shone the spotlight on Estonian composers, I am well disposed to music from the Baltic States. There is a kind of communality in the music. It's hard to define but there is a lot of really interesting and beautiful music that comes from those three small countries. It can be put alongside anything from the rest of Europe and not be found wanting. If Bacevičius can be said to be a Lithuanian composer because his father was Lithuanian and despite his spending little more than a year there then he is an important representative of its musical heritage and deserves to be better known.
Both pianist and orchestra serve the composer well as does conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee whose booklet notes give a good overview of this little known and unfairly neglected composer. As always Naxos gives us all the chance to dip our aural toe into music from different traditions at a small cost. I urge people to take advantage of this opportunity to do so; they will not be disappointed.