Bacewicz Works for Violin and Piano Chandos CHAN10250

Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 2004 and the recording is still available.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Works for Violin and Piano
Sonata No 4 (1949)
Sonata No 5 (1951)
Oberek No 1 (1949)
Sonata No 2 for Violin Solo (1958)
Partita (1955)
Capriccio (1946)
Polish Capriccio for solo violin (1949)
Joanna Kurkowicz (violin)
Gloria Chien (piano)
rec. 2003, St Paul’s Church, Brookline & Chaplin Hall, Williams College, Williamstown, USA
Chandos CHAN10250 [69]

Bacewicz was one of the most distinguished and remarkable of all twentieth century violinist-composers. To maintain her level of technical virtuosity whilst simultaneously devoting herself to composition was a considerable accomplishment, though she was later, from 1955, to devote herself entirely to writing (with a solitary exception to premiere her own Sonata for Solo Violin). Born in Łódź, she rose to fame as a violin soloist, though she was also a more than capable pianist. At the age of twenty-six, in 1935, she received an honourable mention at the now famous Wieniawski Competition won by Neveu, who beat Bacewicz’s near contemporary David Oistrakh into second place. She studied violin with Flesch and composition with Nadia Boulanger, though until the later 1950s it was almost exclusively as a performing musician that she was known. Collectors will be aware that she made a number of recordings of her own music for Muza, including four of the sonatas and the Third Violin Concerto. I think it’s high time, in the light of her increasing hold on the discography of which this Chandos is the latest, and distinguished entrant, that those LP discs should be reissued.

Her music, needless to say, is written with a practitioner’s understanding and a command of balance between the two instruments. The Fourth Sonata of 1949 opens pensively before some folk inflected fluency seems to take the music towards the middle ground. It’s more overtly dramatic than a mentor of hers such as Szymanowski whilst showing strong Francophile affinities; the end of the opening Moderato is distinctly Debussian. The drive and panache of her Scherzo (it’s a four movement work) are ideally complemented by a dancing, twisting finale – more Prokofiev than Szymanowski. The Fifth Sonata followed two years later and is a more compact, tense work with Prokofiev once again a point of reference – her slow movement has an unsentimental aloofness and is the most impressive of the three.

The Oberek No 1, which dates from the same year as the Fifth Sonata, is one of her best known miniatures – certainly one of the most recorded – and generates tangible drive with whistling harmonics à la Sarasate to keep fiddlers on their intonational toes. The Polish Capriccio, which gives the disc its putative title, is another 1949 composition, moving from melancholy to lightness. With the Sonata No 2 for solo violin we don’t move toward Ysaÿe territory, though she must have known his six solo sonatas. Hers has considerable thematic and metrical freedom and some furious displays of bowing in the finale with three big, blatant pizzicati to end the sonata. The Partita exists in two versions – for full orchestra and for violin and piano and was written during her recovery after a bad car accident. The oscillating piano writing and the violin’s spun and questioning line do point to a moment of interior drama – even though the Toccata is lithe and quick and seems to have dissolved the perplexity of the first movement. But in the Intermezzo the tolling piano and disconsolate violin generate introspection of a particularly intense kind, keening off pitch as the movement develops. The finale banishes care – fulsome, frolicking and optimistic.

This is a splendid opportunity to get to grips with a large body of Bacewicz’s chamber music. It’s true that her sonatas have been recorded before and fairly recently, but the focus of interest in those cases tend to be the Fourth Sonata (Olympia and Chamber Sound). It’s the latter that most nearly approximates this one – where the Fourth is coupled with Oberek No 1, the Polish Capriccio, the Sonatina and four Caprices. For Chandos both Kurkowicz and Chien make a formidable case for the music. The violinist is technically eloquent, but there were moments when I wished for a greater range of tone colours – she tends to be rather monochromatic with a single paced vibrato. But that’s carping – if you’re attracted to Prokofiev’s chamber music or to the Bartókian in violin sonatas, try to give Bacewicz a listen.

Jonathan Woolf

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