Joachim Mendelson and Bacewicz Chamber Works Chandos

Joachim Mendelson (1892-1943)
String Quartet No.1 (early 1930s?)
Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano and Oboe (1939)
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
String Quartet (1929-1930)
String Quartet (c.1965)
Silesian Quartet (Szymon Krzeszowiec, Arkadiusz Kubica (violins), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola), Piotr Janosik (cello))
Piotr Sałajczyk (piano), Karolina  Stalmachowska (oboe)
rec. 2009-2022, Concert Hall, Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
Chandos CHAN20181 [56]

A striking collection of unfamiliar music, most of it not previously recorded, by two fine modern Polish composers. The name of Grażyna Bacewicz will, I am sure, be more familiar to most readers than that of Joachim Mendelson. The two composers belonged, broadly speaking to the same generation; Mendelson was born seventeen years before Bacewicz. Both studied in Paris: Mendelson for a few years after 1929 and Bacewicz from 1932-1934. Both returned to Poland in the 1930s. Their subsequent fates were very different. Inevitably, the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the partition of Poland between Germany and Soviet Russia in October of the same year created difficulties (to put it mildly) for both composers. Bacewicz’s performances as a violinist had to take place in secret underground concerts, as did performances of her compositions. After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 Bacewicz and her husband escaped from Warsaw to live in Lublin. Since Mendelson was Jewish the dangers were greater still. In the mid-1930s he had been appointed a professor at the Warsaw College of Music, but with the German occupation of Warsaw he was confined to the city’s Jeish ghetto where, in 1943, he was shot dead by the Gestapo.

Mendelson was, of course, far from the only Jewish composer whose life was destroyed by the Nazis, but given that he had overcome disadvantages of dwarfism to win respect as a composer and teacher, there is something particularly poignant about his death. Judging by the very few of his compositions which survive he was already a gifted composer who would doubtless have developed further. Though the documentation with this disc doesn’t say so, this performance was previously issued on EDA34 in 2010.

Leaving aside such discographical issues to turn to something more important – this is a fine performance of an interesting quartet (for which, incidentally, the EDA issue gives the date ‘c.1925’: in the header to this review I have given the date provided by Chandos. The quartet is in three movements. The opening of the first movement has something of Bartók about it, and there are many shifts in tempo and emotion in a restless movement which is yet permeated by a dancing quality – with the score containing such markings as ‘Più agitato e energico’ and ‘Poco a poco appassionato e accelerando’. This is an intriguing and attractively unsettling movement. The second movement is more settled in mood and tempo, being predominantly slow and gentle in mood, though there is an underlying tension which effectively casts doubt on how long such an emotional state might last. In the closing movement one senses more of Mendelson’s Parisian experiences, with reminders of both Ravel and Debussy in its less than three and a half minutes (the whole quartet comes in at sixteen and a quarter minutes). The quartet was dedicated to the Roth Quartet, founded in Budapest in 1922, which made its debut in Paris in 1924. This String Quartet was apparently one of the sadly few of his compositions which Mendelson heard performed before his violent death.

Hearing the Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano and Oboe alongside his early String Quintet one is left with the impression that, in the 1930s Mendelson was exploring different musical idioms without having fully found his own voice. Like the earlier Quartet, this Quintet is in three movements – ‘Allegro’, ‘Molto lento espressivo’ and ‘Allegro con brio’. It has fewer of the rapid changes of direction that one hears in the first work on this disc. Indeed, it seems to owe more than a little to neoclassicism, in its clarity of texture and purpose and its lucidity of structure. The opening allegro is full of seemingly untroubled vivacity (ironically, given that it was written in the very year of the Nazi invasion of Poland, one might describe it as ‘happy’). In the slow second movement the beautiful main theme (which sounds as though it may have its origins in folksong) is passed from cello to oboe, with piano and strings largely cast in the role of accompanists. The closing movement begins with some strongly accented chords before exploring a variety of instrumental combinations and a diversity of textures and moods. Throughout this fascinating Quintet the musicianship of all involved is thoroughly impressive, not least that of oboist Karolina Stalmachova. 

Both these works by Joachim Mendelson are rewarding and both deserve to be heard more widely and played more regularly.

The two works by Grażyna Bacewicz recorded here for the first time have gone hitherto unrecorded for less disturbing reasons than those surrounding the two works by Mendelson. They have largely eluded attention because the composer chose not to include them in the catalogue of her works.  Having encountered them for the first time, I would not rush to include either of these String Quartets in a list of the works by Bacewicz which everyone should hear. But even if they are not amongst the very finest of her compositions, they are very much worth hearing – though I am conscious that I am such an admirer of Bacewicz that my view may be less than fully objective.

If the suggested date of composition (1929-1930) is correct, then the earlier of these two newly recorded quartets was written while Grażyna Bacewicz was still a student at the Warsaw Conservatoire (she graduated in 1932). Since it is in three movements and occupies less than eight minutes in this performance, it might reasonably be described as a ‘miniature’. Brief it may be, but there is variety here and some thoroughly engaging music, especially in the poignant melancholy of the central movement and the very adroit fugal writing in the closing movement. Perhaps Bacewicz thought the work too slight to list amongst her later works? Or, since there are hints of atonality which she didn’t develop further, perhaps she regarded this work a false start best forgotten?

It is difficult to offer any explanations as to why she might have chosen to omit the String Quartet, written in 1965, from the catalogue of her works. Like the earlier quartet this survives in manuscript in the National Library in Warsaw. Both works have been edited from manuscript by another accomplished Polish quartet, the Royal String Quartet. The edited quartets were published in 2021 by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne with a commentary by a leading Bacewicz scholarMałgorzata Gąsiorowska. Like the earlier quartet on this disc, this 1965 quartet is boldly experimental. Even at the age of sixty or so, as she was when she wrote this piece, Bacewicz was alert to what other Polish composers were doing and keen to experiment with some of their ideas. In the words of Katarzyna Naliwajek’s booklet essay, the quartet was written at a time when “she expand[ed] her compositional style through sonoristic techniques”. The chief influence was undoubtedly that of her Polish compatriots Lutosławski and Penderecki. This influence became more marked after such works of Bacewicz’s as Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958). Interestingly, in a tribute to Bacewicz published after her death, Lutosławski praised her work in the mid-1960s for its “extremely subtle sonoristics” (quoted thus in Małgorzata Gąsiorowska’s ‘Grażyna Bacewicz – The Polish Sapho’, Musicology Today, 16, 2019, p.98).

From the opening moments of this rediscovered quartet it is clear that it occupies a musical world quite different from that inhabited by most of the music Bacewicz had written previously. Listeners of conservative tastes will probably regret the change of direction made by Bacewicz, but I find it exhilarating that a composer with a well-established reputation should be so open to new possibilities at a relatively late stage of her career. The first movement of the quartet alternates abrupt and impassioned bursts of sound with sudden silences, while the second movement contains many moments of considerable (albeit unconventional) beauty, although I have to admit that it is difficult to identify a clear structure binding these moments together. Continuity of structure is also elusive in the penultimate movement, but its shifting textures and colours are consistently fascinating, while the closing movement is characterised by a sense of relative calmness absent from its three predecessors. To present a full analysis of this quartet would demand more words than would be suitable for a review such as this; nor am I confident that I possess the necessary skills to write such an analysis competently. I prefer to encourage those who admire Bacewicz’s more ‘mainstream’ or who have found things to interest them in, for example, the music of Lutosławski to try to hear this quartet. I find it admirable and exemplary that Bacewicz could choose to ‘unremember’ so much of what she had previously learned and mastered and head in a new artistic direction when no longer young and when her health was badly affected after she was seriously injured in a car crash in 1954 – a moving example of human determination and self-renewal.

Of the performances of all four works all that needs to be said is that the Silesian Quartet are every bit as assured and perceptive as one expects them to be and that the two musicians who join them for the Mendelson Quintet are also excellent.

Glyn Pursglove

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music