About this Recording
8.573496 - Violin Concertos (Polish) - BACEWICZ, G. / TANSMAN, A. / SPISAK, M. / PANUFNIK, A. (Plawner, Berlin Chamber Symphony, Bruns)
English  German 

Polish Violin Concertos
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969) • Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986) • Michał Spisak (1914–1965) • Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991)


The notion of nationalism in music reached its height during the Romantic era. Although it continued to be a defining characteristic of many composers and their works throughout the twentieth century, the lines of demarcation became blurred—but no less significant. The four Polish violin works on this recording were written by composers who, although sharing a country of origin, settled and pursued their careers in different places. Only one, Grażyna Bacewicz, lived in Poland for essentially her entire life. Alexandre Tansman and Michał Spisak spent most of their adult lives in France, while Andrzej Panufnik left his country in 1954 to settle in England. Yet all four self-identified as Polish composers and maintained strong ties to their heritage and to musical developments in their homeland no matter where they lived.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969): Violin Concerto No. 1 (1937)

Grażyna Bacewicz belonged to that select group of composers who are also professional performers. In her case, she began as a child prodigy on the violin; her first major success came in 1935 with an Honourable Mention at the first Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw. From 1936 to 1938 she was the concertmistress of the newly formed Polish Radio Orchestra led by Grzegorz Fitelberg. Before World War II she played concerts throughout Europe, often appearing with her pianist brother, Kiejstut (she herself was also an accomplished pianist). It was only in 1953 that she gave up playing professionally to devote herself entirely to composition and teaching. She often sat on the juries of violin and composition competitions.

It was during her tenure with the Polish Radio Orchestra that she composed and premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 (the first of seven she would write in the form). As though to make a personal statement, she begins the first movement with a lengthy introduction for solo violin, leading to a playful, skittering principal theme in A major. The rhythmic momentum is temporarily taken over by the orchestra, over which the soloist introduces a more lyrical idea, but the contrasting textures soon overlap and intertwine. Always strict about the formal structure of her music, Bacewicz ensures that techniques of thematic and motivic development engender each succeeding measure. The glittering surface of her neoclassical allegros is never as improvisatory or freewheeling as it seems.

The second movement is an extended cantilena. The soloist introduces the expansive theme at the outset in F minor, and then repeats it (with varied accompaniment) in E minor. Thereafter it develops freely, plumbing intense depths of feeling before coming to rest gently on F major (with harmonics from the soloist). The concerto’s final movement winks knowingly at classical rondo form with its 6/8 meter. Bacewicz alternates this with an idea in 2/4. Throughout the movement, woodwinds and brass play a prominent role in the accompaniment—the gracious concertmistress delighting in making music with her fellow orchestra members.

A comment from a contemporary Warsaw music critic, although written about a chamber piece composed two years earlier, might easily apply to the concerto: “There is a sense of youth in the composition while simultaneously there is a high degree of maturity. The musical impressions will overwhelm you and the musical thoughts will absorb you. She has a lot to say, and she already knows how to say it well.”

Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986): Cinq pieces pour violon et petit orchestre (1930)

Alexandre Tansman met violinist Josef Szigeti while on tour in America. The Five Pieces for Violin and Chamber Orchestra were the result of a commission from the great Hungarian violinist, who gave their first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1930. The diverse and strongly characterized movements have the character of a Baroque suite, reflecting the composer’s belief that “in music the present will always reflect the past and all its achievements. In my opinion, it is ludicrous to deny what one owes to one’s predecessors for fear that they might affect one’s own personality. Some influences are blinding and all-absorbing, others are conscious and welcome. …I do not aspire to be a modern composer; I simply wish to be a composer of this time.”

The opening Toccata is brisk and forward-moving, its 4/4 meter constantly offset by rhythmic groupings which ignore bar lines (a characteristic found, to some extent, in all five pieces). The high-lying lyricism of the first half of the second movement is succeeded by the evocation of a music box characterized by pizzicato and harmonics from the soloist. Pizzicato returns for the third piece, both in the solo part and the accompaniment, providing textural contrast with the buzzing sound of the “perpetual motion” motif.

In the songful fourth movement, the soloist spins a web of extended melody which climbs to the stratosphere before returning to the opening idea at a lower pitch level. The concluding Basso ostinato returns to the high spirits of the first movement. The descending C major ostinato figure shifts briefly to E major before returning to the home key.

Michał Spisak (1914–1965): Andante and Allegro for Violin and String Orchestra (1954)

In December 1953 Michał Spisak wrote to Grażyna Bacewicz, “I left aside all the unfinished work and got down to … a little story for violin and orchestra.” Originally meant to be a Capriccio, the work eventually became the Andante and Allegro for violin and string orchestra. Nadia Boulanger commissioned the work for a class being taught by Yehudi Menuhin in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1954 (Boulanger also commissioned pieces from Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Henri Dutilleux and Igor Stravinsky for the course). Although the composer did not think much of the piece, calling it “a trifle” or an “odd piece” in letters to his friends, Boulanger felt otherwise. She conducted a performance of it on 16th November 1954 at a concert celebrating the golden anniversary of her teaching career.

Andante and Allegro exemplifies Spisak’s life-long dedication to the neo-classical style, evincing the “peculiar clarity, vividness and … humour” Bacewicz found in his work. The Andante opens austerely, with the soloist ruminating on the instrument’s lowest string before being joined by sombre octaves from the orchestra. The texture thickens with the introduction of double stops, but after a brief cadenza-like passage, the dark opening mood returns. The high-spirited Allegro that follows is a perfectly proportioned ABA miniature that offers ample virtuosic opportunities for the soloist (perhaps betraying its pedagogical origin). The outgoing, energetic activity of the A section contrasts with the more inward-looking lyricism of the B (“Con calma”).

Writing after his death, Boulanger summarized the achievements of her erstwhile pupil: “Spisak was a perfect and complete artist, not in the sense of looking for originality at all costs but due to the distinctiveness and individuality of his style. His artistic thought, although it manifested itself in a way that was generally adopted in his time, had its individual character, which originated in the kind of man he was.”

Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991): Violin Concerto (1971)

Yehudi Menuhin commissioned Andrzej Panufnik to compose a violin concerto in 1971. He needed the work quickly, but when the composer expressed doubts about completing the work on time, he replied wryly, “Start with the last movement.”

In his recent search for a new means of expression, Panufnik had developed what he called his “three-note cell language”. Limiting himself to just three pitches (and their intervening intervals), the composer found, to his amazement, “new harmonies, new expressions, new sound colours. I knew within minutes that this three-note cell … had as much potential for poetic and human expression as it did for intellectual fastidiousness; that it was the ultimate basis from which all my future compositions could grow.” First used in a 1968 piano piece, Reflections, the technique grew to full flower in Universal Prayer, a work for chorus and orchestra championed (and eventually premiered in 1970) by Leopold Stokowski.

When writing the concerto, however, Panufnik’s primary goal was to showcase the warm, expressive qualities for which Menuhin’s playing was noted. He decided therefore to allow himself greater freedom in applying his “system”. He built the first movement, which opens with the soloist alone, almost entirely out of three intervals: seconds, thirds and fourths—sometimes rising and sometimes descending; sometimes major and sometimes minor (or diminished or augmented). Nevertheless, he found great variety of rhythmic, harmonic and colouristic expression within his self-imposed limits. In the second and third movements, the composer limited himself “to even greater economy, with only two intervals (major and minor thirds) as my basis for melodic structures”.

He intentionally avoided any display of empty virtuosity, preferring to “explore to the utmost Yehudi’s rare powers of spirituality”. He further enhanced the sound of the solo instrument by setting it against the homogenous tone of massed strings. The piece is suffused with a Polish flavour. Panufnik recalled in his autobiography, “Writing for the instrument I suppose I felt the pull of my childhood memories—the smell of wood as my father constructed his instruments and my mother’s constant playing—so that the work became a sort of pilgrimage into my past and inevitably emerged somewhat Polish in atmosphere.” In the third movement, the composer uses the rhythm of a traditional Polish dance, the oberek.

Menuhin premiered the work at the City of London Festival in July 1972 and recorded it soon after. It has since gone on to become one of Panufnik’s most popular works. It has inspired the creation of several ballets, among which is David Bintley’s Adieu, based on the composer’s life and his “farewell” to Poland.

Each of the four concertante works for violin and orchestra on this recording, written by composers who were roughly contemporaries but flourished in different parts of the globe, bears the unmistakeable imprint of its creator’s own style. Nevertheless, all sprang from the same Polish roots—the national heritage from which these four diverse players on the international music stage of the twentieth century emerged to play their unique roles.

Frank K. DeWald

Close the window