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CD Review

Grażyna Bacewicz

Works for String Orchestra

  • Symphony for String Orchestra
  • Concerto for String Orchestra
  • Piano Quintet #1 (arr. for string orchestra)
Ewa Kupiec, piano
Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra/Mariusz Smolij
Naxos 8.573229
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Grażyna Bacewicz was born in Łódź in 1909 and played a major role in twentieth century Polish music both as composer and violinist. Her music is not at all adventurous; it may even strike some as "tame" when compared with that of some of her contemporaries. Indeed, listening to the three lyrical, sunny and open works on this CD by the Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra under Mariusz Smolij with pianist Ewa Kupiec may remind some listeners of the early tonal works of Michael Tippett.

Both the Symphony and Concerto for string orchestra are played with a persuasive blend of diligence and poise. The delight which the music's transparency and slightly clipped extroversion we have to supply ourselves. There are times when it's as though the players are more concerned to convey the technique and potential brilliance of Bacewicz' writing by emphasizing her crackling, brisk and optimistic yet honest style than they are to expose (or even refer to) what always seems to be waiting to be expressed just under the surface.

Not that the musicians lack thoughtfulness or technique. Rather, it seems as though they may be aiming to act as apologists, advocates, for music which is otherwise less well known than that of other Polish composers. Maybe the energy which Bacewicz (a pupil of Boulenger in Paris in the 1930s) expended in writing music based on Polish folk culture against the background of mid twentieth century Polish history is what captivates Smolij. Instead of an empirical attachment to what the composer herself has to offer when working in the tradition of Szymanowski in particular.

Bacewicz was a precocious composer and performer: by the age of 12 she was already playing with local orchestras and composing. She was also a determined musical figure in adversity: musical life in Poland during Bacewicz' middle age was hardly easy or uninterrupted. The sense of urgency and purpose of the players here surely reflects both these qualities. As does the music itself to a large degree. Marked "con passione", the final movement of the Piano Quintet arrangement [tr.11], for instance, is more fiery and undaunted than drawing on raw emotion. The optimism which Bacewicz also felt at various times in her life, both for personal and public reasons, is captured well by the breezy and outgoing style of the Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra.

The detachment, the neutrality almost, of the concerto grosso style which Bacewicz adopts is picked up willingly and stylishly by the ensemble throughout the CD. Sturdiness trumps sentiment. But the achievement of Smolij and the Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra is to play without smothering the potential for sensitivity on which the the music is predicated, however obliquely. Not ambiguity. Nor regret. Neither maudlin, nor dalliance. It's a subtle balance which is by and large arrived at successfully.

Bacewicz' first Piano Quintet is here arranged for string orchestra by Smolij. It has a slightly sadder, more reflective tone – like the words of someone who's overcome loss and grief, and has come to terms with them. Kupiec's playing is firm, confident, commanding. Both she and the Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra play the music with style and sympathy. Though they do not allow sentiment to interfere with technique: the music constantly pushes on; indeed, it may even leave us insufficient time to reflect. True, the tempi of most of the dozen or so movements on this CD lasting just over an hour are brisk. But, for all Bacewicz' adherence to pure tonality and conventionality, there are substance, contrasts, shades and some unexpected turns which need a little more time to digest than these players always allow.

The recording was made in the Hall of the Pomeranian Philharmonic, Bydgoszcz; a spacious sound is the result, yet one which allows concentration on the lyricism of the strings and rather "tangy" piano tones. The notes in the usual Naxos-style foldout sheet that comes with the CD are helpful for those new to Bacewicz and her world. Each of these works is available on other recordings, although not Smolij's (orchestral) arrangement of the quintet. If you want a sample of the world of Grażyna Bacewicz this is a good place to start.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey

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