Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Overture (1943)
Piano Concerto (1949)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1966)
Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958)
Peter Jablonski (piano), Elisabeth Brauẞ (piano, Concerto for Two Pianos), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
rec. 2022, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Ondine ODE1427-2 [63]

Grażyna Bacewicz was a very distinguished composer with a substantial oeuvre, a child prodigy violinist and a brilliant pianist. Her music used to be under-recorded; now it is easier to find, and fairly often recorded anew. Just consider the works for string orchestra on Hyperion (review), six of the seven violin concertos on Chandos (review of the second volume), and the string quartets also on Chandos (review), which I for one regard as one of her most significant achievements. This disc, more cause for rejoicing, includes some of her concertos and other orchestral works spanning much of her busy creative life.

The earliest piece here, the brilliant, light-hearted Overture, is full of dash and swagger. It is hard to believe that this short ebullient piece was composed during the German occupation of Poland. Of course, it had to wait until the end of the war to receive its first performance. The structure of the piece is straightforward: an effervescent and lively Allegro section, a slower central section capped by a final Allegro, and a triumphant conclusion.

Bacewicz wrote the Piano Concerto for the Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition organised by the Polish Composers’ Union to celebrate the centennial of Chopin’s death. Anastasia Belina’s useful and well-documented insert notes – which I wish to acknowledge with gratitude – say that the first prize was not awarded and that the second prize went to Bacewicz. At the world première in November 1949, Stanisław Szpinalski was accompanied by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrzej Panufnik. There are fairly typical three movements. The opening Allegro moderato has two contrasting themes based on traditional Polish songs. The slow movement also features a folk song, presented in variations. The Molto allegro finale is in the manner of a rustic dance. This is an accomplished example of Bacewicz’s folk-inflected Neo-classicism. Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto occasionally comes to mind.

Bartók’s influence reemerges in the superb Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion. The title carries a rather obvious debt to his masterpiece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, even if Bacewicz’s idiom may not be quite as progressive. I have a soft spot for this work: it was the first music of hers I ever heard (a long-deleted Philips LP devoted to contemporary music). Again, she favours the three-movement layout. The percussion – xylophone, celesta, timpani and side-drum – is grouped differently in each movement: the drums and celesta in the first, celesta in the second, xylophone in the finale. The first movement is a sonata Allegro with two main melodic ideas. The second movement begins with what might be described as a concertante of solo instruments or their groups; the strings adds to the overall picture, and there is added warmth from the trumpets. The movement ends with the solitary trumpets softly sighing. The music evaporates before launching into the high-spirited Vivace finale, which at times briefly alludes to some earlier material.

This is clearly an homage to Bartók, but Bacewicz remains true to herself in avoiding any attempt at imitation. This is a great work which should be heard more often. Such beautifully crafted music repays repeated hearings.

Influences aside, Bacewicz has always felt free to go her own way. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is closer to more radical-sounding music such as Kazimierz Serocki’s Forte e piano from 1967, also for two pianos and orchestra. Bacewicz’s music is now more overtly dissonant, and dispenses with obvious thematic material in favour of sonic textures in which rhythm has the upper hand. Still, she never discards form, which she had always considered important. The Concerto, a far cry from the earlier Piano Concerto, is a tough nut indeed, but one worth cracking. This is yet another achievement which one is not likely to hear often. One must be grateful to Ondine and all concerned here for allowing us repeated hearings of this significant piece. At any rate, I regularly return to it; it does not yield all its riches in a single hearing.

This is a superb release, wonderfully performed and in excellent recorded sound. People interested in Bacewicz’s music should not hesitate.

Hubert Culot

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