Bacewicz was Polish, though with a Lithuanian father, a generation younger than Szymanowski and a generation older than Penderecki. She was a few years older than Lutosławski and all three of them have so far gained more international recognition. However, despite the problems of her troubled country and those of making a composing career as a woman, she completed four symphonies, no fewer than seven violin concertos, numerous other works and a cycle of seven string quartets. We have here a disc containing four of them, titled "Complete String Quartets 1" so we should expect a successor with the remaining three.
She was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and started in the neo-classical idiom. Stravinsky himself composed little for string quartet which perhaps gave her an opening. Later she became more welcoming of other modernist styles but I shall come to that later. Across all these works there are some characteristic features: she tends to prefer a three movement form; she likes scurrying allegros, sometimes interrupted by sharp stabbing accents. Her slow movements are often very quiet and mysterious. Her finales are rondos but usually with a difference. The way she finishes a piece is often surprising: sometimes with several false endings as in No. 3 here, or fading out, as in No. 7. She can produce snatches of really beautiful melodies but does not dwell on them. She has almost too many ideas for her own good: many of them are splendid, but instead of developing them she will move on to something else. So I do tend to find that her works here lack unity.
The first quartet is noted as a student piece though it is dated 1939, when she was thirty and surely well past student-hood. It has most of the features I have mentioned and I should particularly note that the slow movement consists of variations on a Lithuanian folk song. It is an accomplished work in its own right and not a piece of juvenilia. Nevertheless the third quartet immediately sounds more assured, with more emotional intensity, some of it almost of expressionist proportions.
The sixth quartet is made of sterner stuff. By this time she had been exposed to aspects of twentieth century modernism and it shows. You immediately notice a wider range of string techniques: glissandi, much more use of pizzicato and also of sul ponticello and col legno. There is a higher level of dissonance and the fast movements have more driving force. One thinks less of Stravinsky and more of Bartók as the presiding spirit and it is a credit to her that she can accept such an influence and yet remain herself. This is an impressive work which may explain why it is placed first on this oddly arranged disc.
No. 7 owes even more to Bartók, and in particular to his No. 5. The second movement is a kind of night music akin to the movements Bartók wrote with this character. The finale, however, is different: it is a strange wispy piece with more the character of a scherzo than a finale and it finally just evaporates into thin air.
The Lutosławski Quartet play with vigour and commitment. I did wonder at some points how much rehearsal time they had had, as I can imagine more subtle playing and perhaps it would have resulted in these pieces seeming more integrated. There are other performances of some of them, but in mixed programmes. The recordings have a good concert hall acoustic and the sleeve-note is helpful. I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of Bacewicz and look forward to the second volume of these interesting pieces.