Bacewicz Orchestral works v1 Oramo Chandos CHSA5316SACD

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Orchestral works Vol 1
Symphony No 3 (1952)
Symphony No 4 (1953)
Overture (1943)
BBC symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2023, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, UK
Chandos CHSA 5316 SACD [60]

I’m ashamed to say that, though I had heard of Grażyna Bacewicz, I had not listened in detail to any of her music until I heard part of this disc recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. From the booklet essay by Katarzyna Naliwajek, I learned that Bacewicz was born in Lódź to musical parents. In 1923 she commenced studies at the Warsaw Conservatory; that city was her home for the remainder of her life. I wonder if Bacewicz’s principal subject at the Conservatory was the violin (the notes are silent on this point) because after graduation it seems she pursued a career as a solo violinist for a while. However, at some stage in the late 1930s she accepted an invitation from the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953) to become leader of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which he had established in 1935. She fulfilled this role for two years, during which time she acquired invaluable knowledge of the inner workings of the modern symphony orchestra. After leaving the PRSO she became a full-time composer.

Quite a number of Bacewicz’s works have been issued on CD already by various labels. Chandos themselves released a disc of three of her violin concertos in 2011 (review) – she composed seven in all – and then, in 2016, a set containing her complete string quartets (review). It would seem from the title that they give to this new release that Chandos plan a series of her orchestral works.

The earliest piece on the disc is Overture. This, I infer, is a concert overture; Bacewicz wrote it in German-occupied Warsaw in 1943. It’s a short piece, here playing for 5:42; while it may be short, I think it’s an effective work. The notes quote a contemporary review, written after the 1945 premiere, in which the music is described as follows: ‘Sparkling with life and racing as if on the wings of a rhythmic temperament…bright, simple, and joyous’. That’s a pretty good verdict; I think the piece is entertaining in the true sense of the word. Oramo and the BBCSO offer an exhilarating account of this extrovert music. I think this was Graźyna Bacewicz’s first work for orchestra; she writes with assurance for what sounds like quite a sizeable orchestra.

Between 1945 and 1953, Grażyna Bacewicz composed four symphonies, plus a Symphony for String Orchestra (1946); Sakari Oramo has selected the last two of the numbered symphonies. Both are fairly short – the Third plays here for 30:31 and the Fourth for 25:28 – but I have the distinct impression that in each case the composer says all she wants to say and the succinct nature of these compositions is a virtue. Each of the works is laid out in four movements.

The Third Symphony opens with a short introduction. This is bold and dramatic and a lot of the movement’s thematic material seems to derive from it. The introduction quickly yields to energetic music, though every so often a further, dramatic gesture occurs. The music is taut and full of interest; Oramo leads a powerful, athletic performance. The slow movement, an Andante, is most attractive and expressive; it features a good deal of very appealing writing for the woodwinds. The vivacious Scherzo requires – and receives – very precise articulation from the orchestra. The music is fast, lively, and often witty. In this movement, Bacewicz displays a jazzy brilliance in her writing; so much so that I was put a little in mind of Walton. The finale opens with a quiet, ominous introduction in which the low brass and tam-tam make important contributions. The main body of the movement (Allegro con passione) is often dramatic and, as I hear it, has an element of darkness. The movement is eventful and often powerful. Graźyna Bacewicz’s Third Symphony is a most interesting composition, which I’m keen to explore further. Oramo and the BBCSO do it very convincingly.

Grażyna Bacewicz dedicated what was to be her final symphony to Grzegorz Fitelberg, who died in the year the work was written. Like its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony begins with a dramatic introduction, though this is more compressed than was the case in the Third. Much of the music that follows (Allegro inquieto) is energetic, though there is a slower episode introduced by a solo bassoon. The bassoon’s melody sounds as if it has a folk element to it, though I may be wrong about that; this episode gradually grows in strength before the quick music returns. Overall, the movement is very dynamic (even when the pulse slows), as is the performance. The Adagio which follows has a shadowy start, but the music soon develops into a powerful utterance which is dramatic and, it seems to me, somewhat dark. The music eventually lapses back into the shadows from whence it originated. The Scherzo is fleet and sparkling: the BBCSO plays it brilliantly. Grażyna Bacewicz ends her symphony with a finale which, though it plays for only just over seven minutes, says a lot in a compressed timeframe. The short Adagio mesto introduction is characterised by suppressed tension, but soon the music bursts into life with great dynamism and it’s in that vein that most of the movement proceeds. Like the Third, this last of Grażyna Bacewicz’s symphonies makes a strong impression.

I’m delighted that I’ve made the acquaintance of these works, especially the symphonies, and I’m keen to get to know them better; my review contains my initial impressions. I’m sure that my appreciation of them to date has been enhanced because Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have presented the works with such skill and commitment. I hope they’ll record more of this composer’s orchestral music for Chandos.

When my colleagues and I sampled this SACD in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio we were impressed by the big, immediate sound. Further listening on my own equipment has reinforced that view. I’ve also appreciated the amount of detail which is revealed through Ralph Couzens’ recording. The sound has a good dynamic range and plenty of presence. Chandos has presented both the music and the performances in an ideally vivid fashion.

The booklet includes an extended essay by Katarzyna Naliwajek. Clearly, she knows her subject inside out and she tells us a good deal about the difficulties Grażyna Bacewicz faced during World War II and in the years afterwards when the Communist government was in power. All that’s very helpful, but I’m sorry to say that in some respects I found her essay disappointingly frustrating. At times, especially when describing the music, she goes into technical detail – almost too much so in the case of the Third Symphony. Elsewhere, though, she seems to skate over the subject. For instance in the case of the Fourth Symphony, where she focusses rather too much on the writing for the harp in the first movement but then says nothing at all about the second and third movements. Similarly, when she discusses the composer’s early career, she tells us that Bacewicz enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1923, but it’s only later that reference is made to Bacewicz starting a career “as a virtuoso violinist and an emerging composer”. Are we to infer that the violin was Bacewicz’s primary discipline at the Conservatory? I have the impression that Ms Naliwajek’s notes may be a slimmed down version of a larger essay. I’m afraid what I read didn’t always give me as clear a picture of either the composer or the works in question as I would have liked. I hope Chandos will improve this aspect for the future releases in this series.

This SACD presents music that is well worth getting to know in fine performances. More, please.

John Quinn

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