About this Recording
8.573229 - BACEWICZ, G.: Symphony for Strings / Concerto for Strings (Kupiec, Capella Bydgostiensis, Smolij)

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969)
Concerto for String Orchestra Symphony for String Orchestra • Piano Quintet No. 1 (arr. for chamber orchestra)


Grażyna Bacewicz played a leading role in bringing Polish music into the twentieth-century mainstream and onto the international concert stage, as both a composer and a concertizing violinist. Following in the footsteps of Szymanowski, Bacewicz and her peers kept their roots in native Polish folksong while exploring and welcoming the possibilities offered by the invigorating trends of modernism. That this broadening of Polish musical culture was accomplished in spite of the country’s struggles during World War II and the limitations imposed by the subsequent socialist regime is a tribute to the talent, grit and determination of Bacewicz and her generation.

Born in Łodź, Poland, in 1909, she received her first musical training from her father. She played chamber music with her siblings and violin concertos with the local orchestra; by the age of twelve she had started to compose. When she graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1932 (with degrees in both composition and violin performance) a concert featuring her works marked the occasion. A scholarship from the Polish virtuoso, composer and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski subsequently allowed her to study at the Ecole Normale in Paris. There she joined the growing list of composers studying with the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger and had her first taste of more cosmopolitan musical fashions.

After returning to Poland, she taught briefly at the conservatory in Łodź before moving to Warsaw, where she hoped to concentrate on her playing and composing. Another year of study in Paris followed, after which she accepted the position of concertmistress in the recently formed Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. She played and toured with the orchestra for two years. In the spring of 1939, she made another trip to Paris—this time to supervise a concert dedicated to her compositions—returning to Warsaw just months before the start of the war. Although she and her family (she had married a doctor in 1936) were displaced during the conflict and musical life in Poland was severely curtailed, Bacewicz continued to compose even under the most difficult conditions. Her works from that period include her Second String Quartet, her First Symphony and one of her most popular pieces: her Overture for orchestra.

After the war, Bacewicz renewed her concertizing and served on the juries of several international competitions. She also joined the Polish Composers Union (begun in 1945) and dedicated herself to bringing Polish music to the forefront of the international music scene. For the next decade, however, the political and cultural situation in her homeland imposed limits on what she and her colleagues could do. Her works written from 1945 to 1955 may be broadly categorized as “neo-classical” (although she objected when the term was applied to her music); after the first International Festival of Contemporary Music (known as the “Warsaw Autumn”) of 1956, she welcomed the opportunity to evolve her style in a more contemporary direction. “I disagree with those who maintain that once a composer develops her own style, she should stick to it,” she wrote. “I find such an opinion totally alien; it impedes further development and growth. Every composition completed today will belong to the past tomorrow.”

One of the most important of her post-war works is the Concerto for String Orchestra, composed in 1948. Written in the style of a Baroque concerto grosso, the piece won the Polish National Prize in 1950 and has become a favourite of chamber orchestras in Poland and beyond. After its American premiere by Howard Mitchell and the Washington, D.C., National Symphony Orchestra, music critic Milton Berliner wrote: “…there was nothing feminine about Miss Bacewicz’s piece. It was vigorous, even virile, with…a pulsing, throbbing rhythm and bold thematic material.”

The first movement opens with a sturdy, driven passage distinguished by contrary motion in treble and bass (reprised later in the movement with a tonal centre of G rather than D). A bridge featuring a brief dialogue between solo cello and solo violin leads to the principal thematic idea: an assertive, six-note motive which comes and goes with playful whimsy. Another connecting idea consisting of hushed tremolando chords adds textural contrast. The mood turns serious, perhaps even dour, in the central Andante. Muted violins (with half playing sul ponticello) provide a hushed background for a keening line introduced by solo cello. Throughout the movement, solo lines emerge from the lush texture provided by richly divided (into as many as 17 parts) strings. High spirits return in the final movement—a spiky and angular jig with frequent hemiola cross-rhythms and asymmetrical measures to spark rhythmic interest. Two sections (the first featuring solo viola and the second solo violin) provide slightly more lyrical contrast, but the effervescent rhythmic pulse cannot be denied—it drives the movement to close on the same unison D with which the concerto had begun.

The Symphony for String Orchestra is the earliest work on this programme. Written in 1946, it perhaps reflects the optimism and renewed vigour felt by the composer when she was able to devote herself again wholeheartedly to composition after the war. From the outset the first movement is driven by a restless energy and remarkable inventiveness. Semiquaver motion is nearly always present in one voice or another and Bacewicz spins her motivic material with complete assurance. A similar restless spirit carries over into the Adagio, fed by dotted-note figures and an ambiguous harmonic sense. Midway through the movement it erupts into a brief agitato passage where the semiquavers try to reassert themselves. An airy, almost balletic quality infuses the third movement (where, once again, rhythmic momentum seems unstoppable).

The final Theme with Variations begins mysteriously but gradually evolves into a cornucopia of varied textures, rhythms and motivic transformations. Several variations succeed one another without pause; the theme itself is as much developed as it is varied, rarely appearing in any easily recognizable form.

Bacewicz created an extensive catalogue of chamber music, highlighted by seven string quartets, two piano quintets and five sonatas for violin and piano. She composed her Piano Quintet No. 1 in 1952—a year in which she also earned a second National Prize. The work is remarkable in both form and substance—displaying the composer’s comprehensive understanding of instrumental techniques and sonorities (in addition to being a violin virtuoso, she was an accomplished pianist). After a measured, sombre introduction, the first movement Allegro contrasts two themes—the first is energetic and pointed; flowing piano arpeggios and cantabile strings characterize the second. Bacewicz develops both ideas in an array of subtle yet sophisticated manipulations of the material, capping off the movement with a return to the haunted opening. The following movement evokes an oberek, a Polish folk-dance that was a favourite of the composer (also featured, for example, in her Second Piano Sonata and the finale of her Piano Concerto). The piano introduces the folk-like tune; the highly contrasting mid-section features a sparse duet between keyboard and viola.

The third movement is the emotional heart of the piece. Unremittingly serious, it plays out like a funeral procession. The middle segment introduces a string chorale played over a simple oscillating piano figure. As the piano texture thickens, the music builds to an intensely passionate climax, after which the opening material returns and the procession slowly dies away. The principal motivic idea of the concluding movement is introduced in fugal fashion—on first violins, then seconds, violas and cellos together, and finally piano. An elegantly flowing piano line, which opens with two rising fourths, provides a lyrical second subject.

In whatever style she was writing, whether the music was tonal or atonal, traditional or avant-garde, Grażyna Bacewicz always maintained a level of intellectual rigour in her work. In a 1947 letter to one of her brothers, she explained: “I walk quite alone, because I mainly care about the form in my compositions. It is because I believe that if you place things randomly or throw rocks on a pile, that pile will always collapse. So in music there must be rules of construction that will allow the work to stand on its feet. Naturally, the laws need not be old—God forbid. The music may be simpler or more complicated—it’s unimportant, it depends on the language of a particular composer—but it must be well constructed.” The works on this recording provide ample evidence of this dedication to basic principles of form, yielding pleasures both intellectual and emotional for the discerning listener.

Frank K. DeWald

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