bacewicz violinissimo AP0539

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Polish Capriccio for solo violin (1949)
Sonata No.2 for solo violin (1958)
Capriccios for violin (1968)
Easy Duets on folk themes (1945)
Suite for 2 violins (1943)
Quartet for 4 violins (1949)
Monika Urbaniak, Amelia Maszońska, Marta Mazurek, Katarzyn Seremak, Jacek Świca, Tiffany Tan (violins)
rec. 2020, Bern, Switzerland

From the mid-1930s onwards, having completed her studies – mainly in Warsaw and Paris – Grażyna Bacewicz pursued careers both as an internationally acclaimed violinist and as a composer. In the mid-1950s, however, she gave up her concert career (after being seriously injured in a car accident) and concentrated on work as a composer.

Her output of compositions included four symphonies, concertos for piano and viola and two for the cello as well as seven for her own instrument, five sonatas for violin and piano and a substantial body of songs. Her success as a composer was diverse, so that, for example, works such as her Piano Concerto (1949) and String Quartet No.4 (1951) were awarded prizes in Poland and beyond. However, there is, perhaps not surprisingly, a particular assurance in the works she composed for the violin.

This welcome disc celebrates some of Bacewicz’s works for a single violin, or a number of violins, unaccompanied by any other instrument(s). The back cover of the CD case containing this disc tells us that “the idea for this disc was born during the Culture Escapes festival dedicated to Polish music, which took place in Switzerland in 2019. The University of Arts in Bern made it possible to realize the project of recording Bacewicz’s works exclusively for violin”.

Of the six violinists who play on this disc the senior figure is Monika Urbaniak. She studied in Lódź (where Bacewicz was born) before going on to advanced studies in Bern with Igor Ozim. Since 1997 she has been Professor of Violin at the University of the Arts in Bern. Indeed, of the other five violinists heard on this disc, at least four (Marta Mazurek, Jacek Świca, Tiffany Tan and Amelia Maszońska) have been pupils of Professor Urbaniak in Bern and all six, save Monika Urbaniak were born in the 1990s. Of the six violinists, only Tan was not born in Poland. She was born in Singapore, though she did study in Warsaw. They make a talented, cohesive and thoroughly appropriate group to celebrate an important aspect of Grażyna Bacewicz’s work.

The works are arranged in terms, as it were, of ascending numbers of violinists involved. So the first three pieces on the disc are for a single violin, the next two for violin duo and the last for a quartet of violins. According to the list of Bacewicz’s compositions on the website of the Polish Music Centre, at least one of the works on this disc, the Suite for Two Violins played by Irena Dubiska and Eugenia Umińska was premiered in an underground concert in Warsaw during World War II.

The Polish Capriccio, played by Amelia Maszońska is amongst Bacewicz’s best-known works. Its title immediately provokes a question. Why was this piece specifically designated as ‘Polish’, while the third work on the disc is described simply as 4 Capriccios (4 Kaprysy)? An initial answer that comes fairly promptly to mind is that it makes use of Polish folk materials – but that doesn’t make it unique amongst Bacewicz’s compositions for the violin. There is here a more precise connection to Polish tradition. The ternary structure of this ‘Polish’ capriccio mirrors quite closely that of the Polish folk dance the Kujawiak, which begins slowly, continues with a faster middle section and closes with further acceleration. The Kujawiak is less well known beyond Poland than dances such as the mazurka and polonaise are, in part because it has been less often used by classical composers than those dances. But it was used at least once by a significant Polish composer before Bacewicz’s ‘adoption’ of it, in Henryk Wienawski’s ‘Kujawiak in A minor’ of 1853 for violin and piano. I wonder whether Bacewicz played this piece during her time as a student of the violin? Bacewicz’s Polish Capriccio is dramatically (one might almost say ‘theatrically’) intense; though brief (here, played by Amelia Maszońska it lasts less than three minutes); it packs in a good deal of musical incident as it moves from its Andante opening through its central section (Allegro ma non troppo) to its conclusion, marked ‘molto allegro’. It starts in E minor and then moves through F major, D major and C major, to close in A major in a conclusion full of double-stopping. The energy is intense and cumulative in what is essentially a ‘display’ piece, a reminder of Bacewicz’s standing as a virtuoso violinist. While certainly exciting it isn’t, I think, one of the composer’s more profound works. But it certainly makes an exhilarating opening to this rewarding disc, with Amelia Maszońska capturing its excitement well.

The Sonata No.2 for solo violin, the second work in this programme is in three movements: Adagio. Allegro – Adagio – Presto. The slow movements in Bacewicz’s works are often particularly impressive, and the central adagio of this sonata is no exception; it picks up material presented in the opening section of the sonata’s first movement (also marked Adagio) and is subtle and harmonically fascinating as it slowly unfurls a long and poignantly bleak melodic line. The concluding movement is a kind of moto perpetuo. The sonata gets a performance by Katarzyna Seremak which is both thoroughly assured in technical terms and full of emotional conviction.

The set of 4 Capriccios for solo violin is divided between two performers, with Tiffany Tan playing Nos. 1 and 2 and Jacek Świca playing the last two. In their booklet notes, Marta Mazurek and Monika Urbaniak write astutely and succinctly of these 4 Capriccios and deserve quotation in full: “4 Caprices are almost forgotten works. They are both a treasure trove and proof of Bacewicz’s revolutionary compositional ideas. They show how well she knew her instrument, comprehensively exploiting its sound possibilities. The Caprices are characterized by a multitude of brilliant virtuosic elements interwoven with interesting cantilenas. The composer uses the sound palette of the violin to create an unusual sonority of the work through the use of, i.e. harmonics, arpeggios, glissandos, chords, rapid passages and contrasting violin registers.” These pieces belong, unmistakably, to the period in which Bacewicz responded to some of the ideas developed by the movement known in Polish as sonoryzm (sonorism) which, in the 1950s and 1960s, amongst composers such as Baird, Lutosławski and Penderecki, encouraged a particular emphasis on elements such as instrumental timbre and colour and sound-textures, sometimes privileging such elements above such traditional features as harmony and melody. While it would be wrong to think that Bacewicz was ever a doctrinaire follower of sonoryzm, her interest in some of the movement’s ideas is clear in this set of Caprices, with their many unexpected tone colours and timbres and their use of harmonics as an enrichment of the overall sound.

Written more than twenty years earlier, the seven ‘Easy Duets on folk themes’ could hardly be more different – and not just because the ‘4 Capriccios’ could certainly never be described as ‘easy’! The Duets, intended for children to play, are essentially didactic in purpose. Naturally they don’t require especially advanced technical skill, but there are some refined harmonic touches which remind one that they were written by a woman who was already well established both as a violinist and a composer. The longest of the seven duets (No.3) is under two minutes long and the two shortest (Nos.1 and 7) are under one minute in length. Several of the pieces are explicitly based on traditional Polish dances – Nos. 2 and 5 are krakoviaks and No. 4 is a Kujawiak. The range of mood is quite large and though primarily written for the benefit of those playing them, these duets make for pleasant listening also. Few children, I’m sure, can ever have played these duets as well as they are played here by Monika Urbaniak (first violin) and Marta Mazurek. No.3 ‘Nocturne’ has a genuine, simple charm and No. 6 ‘Song’ has a kind of innocent lyricism which befits both this piece and the set as a whole. The last of the duets, ‘Grotesque March’ contains some appropriately simple but effective rhythmic jokes.

We remain with two violins (those of Amelia Maszonska and Jacek Świca) for the penultimate work in this consistently engaging programme, the ‘Suite for 2 Violins’. This is made up of seven brief movements (the whole is only just 12 minutes long) – Allegro-Andante-Vivo-Tempo di menuetto-Allegro-Andante. Fughetta-Allegro – creating a kind of arch, of which the keystone is the fourth movement, ‘Tempo di menuetto’, placed between two sequences of fast-slow-fast movements. Written during the Nazi occupation of Poland and, as noted above, having its premiere in a secret underground concert in front of a small audience, the Suite has an affirmative quality while also acknowledging the serious darkness of the surrounding circumstances, especially in the penultimate movement. This is a work which initially appears rather simple but which reveals hidden depths with repeated hearings.

This well-conceived disc, which is equally well played and recorded, closes with Bacewicz’s Quartet for 4 Violins. This is a well-structured and rewarding piece. Its three movements (Allegretto. Allegro giocoso-Andante tranquillo-Molto Allegro) encompass a wide palette of idioms and emotions. Hearing it played by four violinists (Monica Urbaniak, Tiffany Tan, Katarzyna Seremak and Marta Mazurek) who are so obviously very familiar with Bacewicz’s work is an unalloyed delight. I cannot resist quoting a few last passages from the booklet notes by Mazurek and Urbaniak, who write that the opening movement begins “with an atmospheric introduction in tempo Allegretto followed by a joyful Allegro giocoso”; of the second they observe that “it has a lyrical character, introducing a unique melancholy mood using multiple harmonies typical of folk music”, while of the final movement they comment that it “is a fast and virtuosic oberek-style rondo with contrasting expressive elements and oriental features.” Within the first movement there is a foreshadowing of the relationship between the second and third movements. Yet the contrast between the last two movements remains striking, though they have considerable emotional intensity in common. The two of them alone (without reference to the rest of this disc) would be enough to demonstrate conclusively that Grażyna Bacewicz could write with remarkable insight and power for the instrument she played so brilliantly – Violinissimo, indeed!

Glyn Pursglove

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