Bacewicz symphonies cpo 555556-2

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Complete Symphonic Works Volume 1

Symphony No. 3 (1952)
Symphony No. 4 (1954)
WDR Sinfonieorchester/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2021, Studioproduktion Köln, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany
cpo 555556-2

It is good to welcome the first volume of a series devoted to Poland’s leading lady of symphonic music, Grażyna Bacewicz. She worked in the middle of the last century, and was yet another leading figure who studied with Nadia Boulanger.

It makes sense to begin with Bacewicz’s possibly best-known symphony, the third, approachable and mostly impressive. If you had an idea how a mid-twentieth century symphony should sound, then this would be it. I have a 1994 recording by the Cracow Philharmonic under Roland Bader (Koch Schwann 3-1143-2, coupled with her Concerto for Strings); this disc contains a recording of an updated edition.

The first of four movements, Drammatico, is full of gravitas if a little too portentous, but the second subject has a thought-provoking sense of mystery. It is developed imaginatively before a not entirely convincing recapitulation. The second movement Andante is in ternary form, with an agitated middle section. The scherzo is witty and rhythmically catchy; 6/8 and 3/4 collide excitingly. The finale is in sonata form, with a stately Moderato introduction which moves into an Allegro con passione with material related to the first movement. The movement concludes Presto, and some powerful final chords close the work. So, classical form dominates but in modernistic clothes.

The new version has two advantages. It is a clearer, more dynamic recording, and the Andante is more relaxed and lyrical (it weighs in at two minutes longer than the 1994 recording). I rather prefer how the older version concludes with a stronger sense of theatre and with fulfilment.

Next comes Symphony No. 4. The booklet essay by conductor Łukasz Borowicz succinctly describes Bacewicz’s style and language. He writes that she showed from an early age “an interest in folklore and rhythm […] she was also captivated by French neoclassicism and fascinated by the energy of Prokofiev’s music and the constructivism of Bartok’s works”. All that can be heard in this brilliant symphony.

The opening movement has an almost threatening Appassionato start, and then bounces us into an aggressive Allegro inquieto. This work is much tougher, and packs more emotion into its twenty-four minutes than the Third Symphony. The Adagio reaches a powerful climax and offers little respite. The masterful Scherzo, an entertaining movement, offers the orchestra a chance to show virtuosity and the listeners much amusement. The finale also requires careful preparation, which it clearly receives here, is challenging to play. It begins Adagio mesto, a reminder of the tragedies which Poland endured in the second war, as well as immediately afterwards and into the 1950s. Then an Allegro furioso angrily presents itself with a powerful coda. I am very glad to have made acquaintance of this fine work. Listen to it if you have any interest in the twentieth-century symphony.

The booklet essay is detailed in the composer’s biography and in the description and signposting of important moments in each movement. The English translation is sometimes somewhat curious.

The performances are first-class. All involved seem to relish getting inside this music. The two symphonies, it seems, are quite well known in Poland, but rarely encountered elsewhere. This disc, the, is well worth the investment. We can look forward with confidence to the next volume of Bacewicz’s complete orchestral works.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (February 2023)

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