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Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Piano Quintet No.1 (1952) [23:00]
Piano Quintet No.2 (1965) [17:35]
Quartet for Four Violins (1949) [9:53]
Quartet for Four Cellos (1963) [12:28]
Silesian Quartet
Wojciech Świtała (piano)
Szymon Krzeszowiec, Krzysztof Lasoń, Małgorzata Wasiucionek, Arkadiusz Kubica (violins: quartet)
Polish Cello Quartet
rec. 2010 (quintets), 2017 (quartets), Concert Hall, Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CHANDOS CHAN10976 [63:30]

It’s commendable that Chandos and Naxos have made great strides to raise the profile of the Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. In 2016 Chandos released a 2 CD set of the composer's Complete String Quartets which I purchased and have enjoyed, following the enthusiastic review of Stuart Sillitoe, who awarded it a Recording of the Month.

I was interested to read in her biography that Bacewicz was a violinist of some note, leading the Polish Radio Orchestra before the war, and performing the solo part in both Szymanowski Violin Concertos. She premiered many of her own violin works, including her first four violin concertos, five sonatas and partita for violin and piano with her brother Kiejstut, and two solo violin sonatas. She was also a capable pianist and gave the first performance of her Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953). In 1954 she was involved in a car accident, suffering serious injuries. Thereafter, she concentrated primarily on composition. I’ve no doubt that her intimate knowledge of the violin and piano stood her in good stead in her skilful and idiomatic instrumental writing in the works featured on this disc.

I'll start with the earliest work, the Quartet for Four Violins of 1949. It’s an unusual format, but any initial misgivings I had about a perceived bass-light configuration were soon dispelled by the sheer mastery of Bacewicz’s writing. It was composed as a teaching piece and bears a dedication to students. Conforming to the political situation of the time, when music had to appeal to the “broad masses of the people”, the composer blends folk music and neo-classicism into a three- movement score of magical brilliance. The outer movements are spiky and rhythmically animated, whilst an introspective meditation, wistfully glancing back to times past, sits centre-stage.

Three years later Bacewicz composed her First Piano Quintet. In four movements, the opener begins in restrained manner with Bartók hovering somewhere in the background, before the music springs to life in buoyant fashion. The movement ends quietly as it began. There follows a scherzo-like Presto in the form of an oberek, a sort of mazurka on steroids. I love the tight rhythmic hold the players have on this spirited dance. The Grave third movement is a sombre affair with a funereal tread. It seems to be weighed down by all the troubles of the world. The finale is soused with vigour, vitality and euphoria and is intensely dramatic.

The Quartet for Four Cellos was premiered on 24 September 1964, a year after completion, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. At the time, the composer stated that she was drawn to the “rich sound world” this combination had to offer. It is in two movements, titled Narrazione and Riflessioni. Bacewicz is in experimental mode and explores the rich sonorities of the cello in a dissonant and texturally colourful embroidered canvas. The music moves away from a cantilena to something more guttural, and achieves a sound world of striking potency. I’m pleased to be reacquainted with the wonderful playing of the Polish Cello Quartet; I had the pleasure of reviewing their debut album on the CD Accord label last year.

The three-movement Piano Quintet No. 2 dates from 1965, an exceptionally productive year for the composer. Her avant-garde leanings are here tempered by a backward glance to her neo-baroque style of the 40s and 50s. She sets up the piano in a concertante relationship with the strings, and they act as foils for each other. The Second Quintet certainly sounds more modern than the First. The use of diaphanous glissandi in the first movement evokes an eerie effect, and the movement’s many changes of tempi give it a mercurial feel. Fragility and anguish characterize the central Larghetto, whose crepuscular character has something of a Bartókian flavour. The mood lightens in the third movement, which is an upbeat sprightly romp. The Silesian Quartet and pianist Wojciech Świtała have full measure of the ebb and flow of the work’s complex trajectory.

These are gripping and exhilarating performances, which I cannot fault in any way. The Chandos engineers have done in a sterling job in capturing the detail of each of the instruments. This is facilitated by the generous acoustic of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music concert hall in Katowice. Adrian Thomas’ scholarly notes are an added bonus.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


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