Grażyna Bacewicz – Complete Symphonic Works Vol. 1; Piano Concertos

by 5:4

A composer i’ve been trying to get the measure of lately is Grażyna Bacewicz. Bacewicz died in 1969, but her output seems to be going through something of a rediscovery of late, with concert performances and new recordings now emerging with increasing regularity. It’s a generalisation, i know, but over the years i’ve grown accustomed to having an ambivalent relationship with the music of most Polish composers, oscillating between love and hate in response to, among others, Szymanowski, Penderecki and Lutosławski (the exceptions being Górecki, all hate, and Panufnik, all love). Where Grażyna Bacewicz is concerned, however, the situation is altogether less dramatic: no love – at least, not really, not yet – but nothing approximating hate either.

The CPO label is evidently launching on a project to explore Bacewicz’s larger-scale output, as they’ve recently released the grandly titled Complete Symphonic Works Vol. 1 (it’s worth mentioning that CPO’s Complete Orchestral Works Panufnik box was the starting point for my love of that composer; it’s really wonderful). For whatever reason, despite this being the first release in their cycle CPO have decided to jump in halfway through the story, featuring Bacewicz’s Third and Fourth Symphonies. Parallel to this is a new release on Ondine that explores Bacewicz’s concertante music, including the Piano Concerto, Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra, and the Music for Strings, Trumpets & Percussion. In both cases – also informed by a recent live encounter with her Viola Concerto – i’ve found myself repeatedly wondering how much is really going on beyond their impressively vibrant and energised but undeniably gestural surfaces.

That’s especially true of the symphonies, performed here by the WDR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. The two works date from the early 1950s, and in both cases their primary interest comes from the tension and balance between twin impulses toward either speed or lyricism. It’s invariably the case that Bacewicz is at her most impactful in the latter, yet the lyrical side is given relatively short shrift in both symphonies.

Symphony No. 3 (1952) makes a strong statement in its opening two movements. The opening Drammatico entirely lives up to its name, with a grandiose intoned line punctuated by brass, and its subsequent momentum is regularly disrupted by exploration of a 4-note motif. Its language sounds rather filmic in the latter stages, and this extends into the following Andante, though its neo-romantic flavour is given a sufficiently 20th century rethink to avoid becoming empty gloss. The potential laid out here is let down by the last two movements. The lush moments of the Vivace are challenged by the chirpy triviality surrounding it, while the Finale returns to the dramatic sweep and that recurring motif from the opening, but its reflective asides are lost in the music’s determination to push on over a bland, chugging pulse. Sequences like this sound not merely trivial but highly superficial, as though, as i indicated above, the surface of the music was all that mattered, a stream of splash and froth that’s entirely ephemeral.

Symphony No. 4 (1953) has even more of this, it’s own dramatic opening – apparently with real weight and heft – dissolving quickly into the kind of lively, light-hearted music suitable for any comedic underscore. It’s all the more frustrating as Bacewicz pulls the opening Appassionato into a sequence of mysterious lines, the symphony ticking over while low glissandi descend, but this is forgotten in the rather blank energy that ultimately prevails. Its high point, like Symphony No. 3, is its slow movement, an Adagio where for six minutes the music is allowed simply to sing. Though very metric in nature, its lyrical scope allows for some impressive surges and a more meaningful sense of climax than heard elsewhere. The final two movements, like its predecessor, return to the world of surface-focused momentum. In the Scherzo this really sounds like it’s all that matters, a romping, florid veneer that’s quite entertaining though the grandiloquence is off-putting, and its ending is far from convincing. There’s a little more variety in the final movement, though here too the apparent emotional depth articulated in its opening minutes (marked Adagio mesto) are swiftly left behind as the symphony presses on to a modest gallop, over which the pitches we hear seem irrelevant and arbitrary, culminating in a coda that’s not so much decisive as bludgeoned into place.

i should stress that there are things i really like in both of these symphonies, and those content with music that simply drives forward with minimal time for repose or reflection won’t have any issues with either of them. But it feels disappointing that the times when the music seems to be going somewhere genuinely deep are ultimately either trivialised or diminished by their broader context. Regardless of these frustrations, the performances on this album are absolutely first-rate, in terms of both clarity and conviction. Considering that most of Bacewicz’s orchestral output dates from after these symphonies, it’ll be very interesting to hear how it compares, as CPO moves ahead to the other two volumes still to come.

There’s a similar situation where the concertos are concerned, performed by Peter Jablonski and Elisabeth Brauß with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. This is emphatically so in the short Overture that opens the disc, a short exercise in breathless effervescence (with not so much lyrical asides as downright red herrings) that’s arguably the most cursory music heard on both of these releases.

The Piano Concerto (1949) fairs best due to the way Bacewicz makes its musical language thrive on a more significant contrast, even conflict, between those twin impulses toward rhythmic drive or lyricism, and as such it’s the most engaging work on the album. The lyrical impulse consistently undermines the driving momentum of the opening Allegro, to the extent that, overall, that tempo indication is pretty much rendered moot. The music repeatedly turns inward, to a place of intimacy and rumination, and while these episodes aren’t lacking in drive, their dominant characteristic is to reflect and sing. As such, the bold tuttis, with their occasional whiffs of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók, sound rather brash and bombastic. The central Andante allows the music’s melodic urge to continue unimpeded, and it reveals an unexpectedly forthright attitude, surging from that place of intimacy to trace a surprisingly weighty, even lofty melodic contour. Bacewicz’s language has folk leanings but is also neo-romantic such that, to an extent, it undermines the music’s apparent earnestness. The closing Molto allegro tilts the other way, back to the driving force of the opening, which again is held up by smaller-scale ideas that don’t merely contrast with the spiky repetitions that permeate the tuttis, they also manage to fuel a lyrical thread running through them.

Music for Strings, Trumpets & Percussion dates from nearly a decade later, by which time that lyrical sensibility appears to have yielded to a more demonstrably motoric instinct. Again halted by meditative digressions, the first movement displays a curious and unpredictable form of lyricism, though its muscle is more blunt and hard-edged, at times almost pugilistic. Likewise the closing Vivace is all chugging momentum and fanfaric bursts, gestural and inconsequential. Its central Adagio is the highlight of the album, a muted and introspective world of darkness and oblique harmonies. Two-thirds through we enter into a place of icy trills and near silence, light but distant, the beauty of the movement being that it’s sufficiently prolonged and inward that it becomes hard to remember where we came from.

Dating from 1966, the Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra is the latest work on the album, composed just three years before the composer’s death. Somewhat mitigating the momentum here is the music’s shape-shifting character (the first movement is marked Tempo mutabile), yet its range feels limited and there’s again the nagging sense of triviality. The final movement is similarly “mutabile”, though caught in a stop-start progression that seems to cancel out each new idea, since none of them really has a chance to get going or become substantial. Once again it’s in the central Larghetto where Bacewicz’s ideas are given time to amount to something, here charting a significant departure from the surrounding movements via portentous orchestral contemplations and surprisingly forceful piano expansions.

As with the symphonies, there’s a great deal to enjoy in these pieces, though i once again find myself struggling to stay interested in their seemingly default position of mere frivolous velocity at the expense of the all-too-brief glimpses of deeper and more meaningful material. On this album, it’s clear that everyone involved is having an absolute blast, and perhaps from their perspective – and possibly from Bacewicz’s too – that’s the point of it all. Ultimately, while they’ve left me ambivalent, they’ve nonetheless also left me eager to hear more.

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Chris L

Looks like Dux Records put out an album of Music for String Orchestra at around the same time as the CPO disc. Even more to explore…!

Chris L

In listening to the 4th Symphony and 2 Pianos Concerto, I found it helpful to think of Bacewicz as akin to Martinů. There are even similarities in their approach to harmony (less so in the concerto, admittedly), if not melody or rhythm (Martinů could be mistaken for no-one else in those respects)! More importantly, though, I believe both shared an essentially sunny musical disposition through which worlds of pain, pathos and poignancy could nevertheless be glimpsed.

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