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Things are looking up when there are three competing versions of Grażyna Bacewicz’s cycle of seven string quartets. As well as the Lutosławski Quartet’s Naxos inscriptions on two separately available discs (8.572806 and 8.572807) there is a box on the Acte Préalable label by the Amar Corde Quartet (AP0019/21) which also contains the Piano Quintets. This was the pioneering set that gave premičre recordings to the first two of the quartets.
Composed between 1938 and 1965 they chart the course of Bacewicz’s musical values and beliefs in a near three-decade span of time. Unlike the competing recordings, the Silesian Quartet and Chandos present everything strictly chronologically. Thus we start with the bright and brilliant No.1 with a Lithuanian song embedded in the theme and variations second movement. More personal is No.2 where her characteristic use of glissandos and folk-inflected material is especially vitalising. Given that it was composed in 1943 it’s remarkable that it shows no signs of wrenching angst but there is a taut nocturnal element to some passages. Its neo-classical allegiance emerges best at a firmly moving tempo and that’s the solution adopted by the Silesian who here outclass the over-cautious Lutosławski - whose performance falls apart somewhat at their tempo – and are also sharper than the Amar Corde. The quite brash recording acoustic serves well for the finale where Szymanowski’s influence can be felt – appropriately, perhaps, the recording venue is the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music.
Urgency and a congruent sound world mark out this performance of No.3 and the diatonic, songfully beautiful Andante is especially finely realised by an ensemble scrupulously attentive to Bacewicz’s sound world. If the actual sound of the recording accorded the Amar Corde is somewhat warmer, the performance remains just that bit less agile and responsive. The Fourth is her most famous and perfect quartet, its material always at the service of her musical argument. It’s telling that even in the folklike moments of this work, the Silesian players adroitly vary their vibratos to shape its expressive rise and fall – textures and dynamics are excellent, and if there is agreement on tempo between all three groups – almost uniquely contrasting these three sets – this one is the best played.
Bacewicz sometimes references Beethoven’s structures in her own quartets, as she does in the Fifth Quartet, but the gradual absorption into her music of the influence of mid-period Bartók serves only the heighten its individualism and characterful quality. The whistling folk tunes over pizzicati – very much a signature musical dish for her – are here but so too is a fascinatingly droll double fugue. Her dissonances are invariably bracing and dynamic – much like her music in total effect – and is richly populated with colour and variety. This quartet gets a really outstanding reading in this performance. The Sixth Quartet of 1960 benefits from acidic glissandi, Bacewicz’s own wailing sirens of alarm, but also from a wealth of technical know-how and devices; she was herself a splendid violinist and I’ve argued before that her recordings as a solo violinist should be reissued. The intense but brief athematic elements in this quartet show her responding to prevailing winds of change, but she remains her own woman, unwilling to sacrifice the seed bed of her inspiration, which can evidenced by the last of the cycle. Those nocturnal and Bartókian elements are back, but also very slowed-down folk motives. The serious-minded slow movement has short motifs but intense colour combinations, always fascinating when juxtaposed as here. Her musical palette is invariably exciting.
The inaugural recording of the quartets by the Amar Corde will have a strong hold on my allegiance. They premiered the first two quartets and many of their tempo-related decisions are not dissimilar to those taken by the Silesian. We’ll have to leave aside the Lutosławski, as they are too sluggish and insufficiently varied in colour. But for total command, instrumental precision, and interpretative assurance, the Silesians should now be the favoured exponents.