Polish Violin Concertos
Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1937) [12:41]
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Cinq pièces pour violon et petit orchestre (1930) [12:12]
Michał SPISAK (1914-1965)
Andante & Allegro for Violin and String Orchestra (1954) [9:11]
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Violin Concerto (1971) [21:56]
Piotr Pławner (violin)
Kammersymphonie Berlin / Jürgen Bruns
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin Germany 15-18 September 2014, Usedom Festival, Kaisersaal Hotel Maritim, Heringsdorf Germany 3&4 October 2014 (Panufnik)
NAXOS 8.573496 [56:01]

This is an interesting and valuable survey of 20th Century concertante works for violin written by composers of Polish origin. As the liner notes point out, the concept of musical Nationalism was at its peak in the 19th century. Only one of the composers represented here, Grażyna Bacewicz, lived permanently in the country of her birth, but all four of them maintained close ties to that country's heritage. With the exception of Spisak's Andante and Allegro—which I have not been able to find online except in this performance—all the works are available in alternative performances. This, however, is a unique collection performed with skill and intelligence.

Grażyna Bacewicz belongs to that special group of 20th century composers—the composer/performer—much more common as a 19th Century phenomenon. She was a child prodigy on the violin, and before World War II led the Polish Radio Orchestra. We are given here the first of her seven violin concerti, composed during her leadership of that orchestra. All seven have appeared on a pair of Chandos discs, but this was my first encounter with any of them. This is a compact and confident work, written in the classical three-movement fast-slow-fast form. No surprise that Bacewicz should write so effectively for the solo instrument but what does impress in a youthful work is how well she keeps the accompanying textures clean and lucid. This lucidity underlines the neo-classical aesthetic of the work: not emotionally detached but also not seeking to make profound musical utterances. So the lyrical second subject is sinuous and quite sensual though not weighty.

Bacewicz uses a moderately-sized orchestra with interjections from tuned percussion and the heavier brass judiciously reserved for key moments. The Kammersymphonie Berlin under Jürgen Bruns play this work—and indeed the entire programme—with exactly the right blend of edgy brilliance and sharp ensemble. The generous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin supports the first three works with the orchestra set back into the church and soloist Piotr Pławner quite closely miked. Pławner has a leaner tone than some other contemporary violinists, which again seems wholly appropriate to this repertoire, but he obeys the molto espressivo marking of the central movement of the Bacewicz to produce a beautifully sustained lyrical line. The closing vivace is again brightly vivacious with some interesting quirks in the orchestrations and sudden switching of beats and tempi to surprise to unwary listener. For sure an impressive first concerto, but it is hard not to think that Bacewicz probably found a way to fuse her complete understanding of the instrument with a deeper and more individual utterance in the other six concertos she wrote.

If the Bacewicz concerto could be broadly described as neo-classical, then Alexandre Tansman's Cinq pièces are neo-baroque. The French title also gives lie to the fact that the composer lived most of his creative life in France. As far as the musical nature or musical nurture debate goes in this work, Tansman falls firmly on the side of nurture. To the innocent ear this would sound like a work by Jacques Ibert or Jean Françaix at their most insouciant. Concision is again key. The work in total lasts just 12:12, and the longest of the five sections, the opening Toccata, takes just 3:07. Tansman broadly follows the idea of a baroque suite of dances, again in contrasting fast/slow juxtaposition. The opening Toccata bustles with snapping energy, and every bar features cross-accenting and harmonic instability.

The whole work is a real gem, very well played again by Pławner and the Berlin orchestra, who to my ear find a perfect balance between the playfulness and the muscularity. Sometimes this kind of music can descend into excessive—and wearing—aggression. Not here; they tread the fine line with great skill. Again I was struck by the way Pławner "sweetens" his tone for the very attractive 2nd movement, Chanson et boite à musique. Some might think it too expressive for this objective style of music, but I think it is just right both musically and as part of the listening experience. In doing so Pławner points the differences between these brief but appealing pieces. In this same movement Tansman's skill as an orchestrator is demonstrated in his evocation of a music box. Although he achieves this with just a few simple orchestrational brush-strokes, it is as evocative as it is charming. The quick-silver Movement perpétuel is tossed off with nonchalant brilliance. The penultimate Aria is played with a beautifully poised and expressive control of its long lyrical lines. This is the obvious heart of the work and the most overtly neo-baroque—lovely intertwining between Pławner and the orchestra's oboist. The work is brought to a energetic and good-natured conclusion by a marching Basso ostinato. This is an instantly appealing and warm-hearted work and one that deserves wider dissemination. I suspect that its brevity and trickiness makes it an awkward work to programme in concert, so being part of a mixed programme like this is an ideal solution.

The remaining two works on the disc were commissions for Yehudi Menuhin. The first, Michał Spisak's Andante and Allegro for violin and string orchestra, was commissioned by his teacher Nadia Boulanger to be performed at a class taught by Menuhin in the summer of 1954. According to the liner notes, Spisak was not overly enamoured of his own work, calling it "trite" and "an odd piece". I have to say that I think the composer is being overly self-critical. This is his only work I have ever heard, but again it is another enjoyable work in a clearly neo-classical style. The two movements are well contrasted, opening with a pensive and expressive Andante. There is an angular lyricism to the music, which Pławner captures well. The textures are kept sparse and simple to a particularly good effect in this opening movement. The following Allegro has a stamping Bartokian energy with the soloist very much to the forefront both technically and in terms of carrying the bulk of the musical argument. The liner notes wonder if some of the display element reflects the pedagogical origin of the work. I must admit I do not hear it as such, although the relative simplicity of the string accompaniment would make it a practical work for a student group to pick up quite quickly. Spisak seems to have almost no presence in the recorded music catalogue, which on the evidence of this work is a shame.

The disc closes with the best known—and certainly most recorded—work of the four. I can think of at least three other versions of the Panufnik violin concerto: the original recording by the dedicatee Menuhin on EMI, a fine Conifer disc with the excellent Krzysztof Śmietana, and the 8th disc in the CPO survey of Panufnik's orchestral works played by Alexander Sitkovetsky. On further checking I see there is at least one other version on Dux, played by Robert Kabara. The CPO and Dux discs I have not heard. The EMI disc is of historical value and authority since Menuhin was—as mentioned—the dedicatee and since Panufnik conducts. Compared to Pławner, it is noticeably slower in all three movements and you can hear little technical blips in Menuhin's bow control that started to affect his playing in later years. I have not seen the score but it is interesting to note that Pławner plays the opening lyrical line with a deliberately etiolated tone and no vibrato, whereas Menuhin prefers a more overtly lyrical approach. Since Śmietana also favours the vibrato-free approach, I assume it must be so in the score, so Menuhin chose to ignore it! In the first two movements Śmietana and Pławner have almost identical timings.

Pławner is the most muscular and dynamic of the three once the movement has reached its main central faster section. Menuhin/Panufnik are much slower than either, which allows the slow sections to blend into the faster ones, but I do like the head of steam that Pławner generates. The central Adagio sees Menuhin nearly a minute and a half slower than Pławner. This gives the music an extra meditative quality, very compelling. Pławner's playing is more poised but perhaps Menuhin edges this with the sense of mystery he achieves. The closing Vivace is a capricious toccata-like movement played with bravura skill on this new disc. Menuhin labours to sound anything like as playful with his tone coming under pressure. The Śmietana disc is overall very impressive too, although now it can only be found as a second-hand copy.

The performance by Pławner of the Panufnik concerto is taken from live concerts but there is no discernible audience noise or technical mishaps. Engineering-wise this is very well balanced too—a good neutral acoustic, supporting but not influencing the recorded sound. Throughout, the playing of the Berlin orchestra is pleasingly alert and responsive under conductor Jürgen Bruns' sympathetic direction. The liner notes by Frank DeWald are in English and German only, and rather brief, but full of useful information. At 56 minutes this is a relatively brief disc. Certainly, the quality of the music and its performance leaves one wishing for more.

A valuable and engaging survey of 20th century Polish violin concerti.

Nick Barnard

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