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The music of the Polish violinist and composer, Grażyna Bacewicz, is slowly gaining in popularity. This is the third complete survey of the string quartets; the others having both been reviewed in these pages. The first is by the Amar Corde Quartet on Acte Préalable (review) and also offers the two piano quintets. The other is from the excellent Lutosławski Quartet for Naxos (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). These are not the only recordings of these wonderful quartets. My introduction to Bacewicz's music was through an old Olympia disc (OCD 310) - one which I would not be without. It features the Grażyna Bacewicz Warsaw String Quartet playing the Fourth and Seventh Quartets coupled with the Warsaw Piano Quintet in Piano Quintet No. 1.
Perhaps it is because they are the works by which I got to know the composer, but I have always found the Fourth and Seventh the most compelling, and this is also the case here. Whilst the First Quartet bears the influence of the French school, having been composed whilst she studied with Nadia Boulanger, it still shows a composer with a lot to say. The subsequent quartets demonstrate the development of Bacewicz's musical style and her mastery of the quartet form. In this respect this Chandos double is a winner as it presents the quartets in chronological order; the only set to do this. This means that it is easy to follow this growth and stylistic evolution.
The Quartet No. 2 was composed during the Second World War and shows a more modernist approach to the idiom than the First. Its outer movements are bold and strident with the central Andante being the heart of the piece. Despite the work's modernism, there is no need to be wary; it is still very approachable. The following three quartets have the air of the "Soviet string quartet" about them, especially in their more neo-classical aspects. That said, they are composed in a style that is Bacewicz’s own. Whilst the Third Quartet was the most popular of the seven during the composer’s lifetime, it is the Fourth which chimes more with me. The Sixth Quartet shows another stylistic shift, this time towards the more avant-garde. This is a rhythmically strong work and one which gets up there with the Fourth and Seventh the more I listen to it. The final quartet was composed just four years before Bacewicz’s death and is in a more contemporary style. Once again I find the central slow movement with its plucked strings the most compelling.
This is an excellent recording of these fine works, one which for me has the edge over the recent Lutosławski Quartet on Naxos. Here the Silesian Quartet are more assured; it is as if the Lutosławskis learnt the music for the recording whilst the Silesians show an understanding that comes from performing the quartets as part of their active repertoire. This is also helped by a more favourable acoustic; with the Lutosławski Quartet’s recording occasionally sounds a little heavy in places. The excellent booklet notes by Adrian Thomas also have the edge over those provided by Naxos, all of which points to Chandos having a clear winner. I only hope that the label goes on to give us further examples of this composer's chamber music. If the Piano Quintet No. 1 is anything to go by - there are some real gems out there waiting to be recorded.