• Bacewicz: Music for Strings (Hyperion, 2009)


Bacewicz: Music for String Orchestra
Hyperion CDA 67783 (2009)
New London Orchestra, cond. Ronald Corp

• Concerto for String Orchestra (1948)
• Sinfonietta (1936)
• Symphony (1946)
• Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958)


This CD has been recorded to mark the centenary of the birth of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), and it will contribute greatly to the knowledge of her music outside her native Poland.  Nevertheless, it remains the case that her music is far less well-known and less frequently performed than it deserves, despite her being the most distinguished successor to the group of violinist-composers which included her nineteenth-century compatriot Henryk Wieniawski and the Romanian George Enescu.

Bacewicz was one of the most significant composers of the mid-twentieth-century, with strong roots in the culture of Paris, where she studied both composition and violin in the early 1930s.  Her most striking music is that which draws on her experience of the neoclassicism of inter-war France.  She emphasises neoclassicism’s vitality and clarity while at the same time giving it a combination of delicacy and muscularity which is all her own.  While she demonstrates both wit and joie de vivre, her music is never frivolous.

Bacewicz’s training as a violinist, her experience as leader of the Polish Radio Orchestra towards the end of the 1930s, and her tours as a concerto soloist after World War Two led to her strong commitment to enrich the string repertoire.  In addition to the works on this CD, she wrote seven violin concertos (as well as one for viola and two for cello), seven string quartets and a quartet for four cellos, five sonatas and a partita for violin and piano, two sonatas for solo violin, and a number of encore pieces.  The Concerto for String Orchestra (1948) is her most celebrated work, while two of the other pieces – the Sinfonietta (1935) and Symphony (1946) – are recorded here for the first time.  Remarkably, this is the first time that Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958), one of her key pieces, has been recorded outside Poland.


The Sinfonietta, which was premiered in 1936 by the Polish Radio Orchestra under its renowned conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, was written after she had returned from her studies in Paris.  That same year it received an honourable mention in a competition run by the Society for the Publication of Polish Music, when she used the pseudonym ‘Simplicity’.  In fact, although its three movements are quite brief, they are anything but simple.  Regular structures and neat recapitulations were not for her.  The outlines of sonata and ternary forms are just about discernible, but this very early work is notable for its free spirit.  Bacewicz teases the listener with her metric and rhythmic ingenuity, with juxtapositions of exuberance and lyricism, in which forward development and momentum are more important than exact recall or traditionally balanced structures.  These features are particularly prevalent in the opening Allegro, whose recapitulation is a subtle and intuitive reconfiguration of earlier ideas.

The central Andante has an altogether darker hue, with a harmonic palette somewhat reminiscent of Hindemith.  Here, as elsewhere, the string textures are prescient of later pieces, including the combination of harmonics, pizzicato and lyrical melody, or the concertante interplay, derived from the Baroque concerto grosso, of solo trio (violin, viola and cello) and tutti.  Although the Finale is notated in 3/4, it frequently cuts across this metre, and its structure is the most daring of all: hints at a fugal texture seem to suggest an imminent reprise, but the movement suddenly shifts into the coda and finishes with a cadential flourish.


In the last ten years or so, the Polish Music Publisher PWM has issued a number of works, including the first two string quartets, which Bacewicz had either held back from publication or had never included in her official list of works.  The Sinfonietta is an example of the former and the Symphony for strings of the latter.   The Symphony does not seem to form a direct link in the stylistic lineage between the Sinfonietta and the Concerto, and perhaps this was Bacewicz’s original reason for its exclusion.  Its four movements are also altogether more serious, replacing the lightness of these flanking works with an earnestness that belies her innate sense of fun, as testified by everyone who knew her.

Like the Sonata da camera for violin and piano which Bacewicz had written the previous year, the Symphony has strong elements of Baroque stylisations.   Yet the language of the opening movement of the Symphony can be gritty, disjunct and rhythmically driven in a way prescient of postmodern trends that emerged long after her death.  Bacewicz remains true, however, to her idea of through-composed movements that merely nodded in the direction of conventional structures.  The ensuing Adagio has a much thinner harmonic language and texture, at moments akin to Shostakovich, and there are passages where the music achieves a yearning, almost anguished intensity, anticipating the expressive depth that she would achieve in the later works on this CD.  After the scurrying, relatively diatonic Allegretto, the Symphony ends with a Theme and Variations.  It is perhaps not surprising that the formal divisions suggested by this title are by no means transparent and that the movement seems to develop across them with increasing vigour.

Concerto for String Orchestra

The Concerto for String Orchestra, which followed two years after the Symphony, is Bacewicz’s most frequently performed orchestral piece, both at home and abroad, and deservedly stands alongside the serenades of Dvóřak, Tchaikowsky and Elgar and the suites by Grieg and Warlock.  It strikes a persuasive balance between expressive weight and deftness of touch as well as between distinctive thematic ideas and her ongoing fascination with the reconfiguration of standard structural procedures.

The opening Allegro of the Concerto has three principal themes, all of them interconnected motivically yet not obviously.  The movement begins with a striding theme, of decidedly Baroque character, markedpesante.  The second theme provides a concertante interlude for solo violin and cello against sul ponticello violas.  The third theme intercuts an energico motif on the low strings with pizzicato violin chords (recalling a texture from the first movement of the Sinfonietta).  Bacewicz develops this idea more significantly than might be expected at this stage of the structure.  After a reintroduction of the concertante theme, a typically quixotic recapitulation ensues and swerves back to the home key only at the very end.

Although Bacewicz is often discussed in terms of her motoric rhythms, the heart of her music is really to be found in her slow movements.  The Andante of the Concerto is arguably her most sublime.  It opens with a shimmering violin texture in thirds, combining mutes, tremolando and sul ponticello.  Its theme inverts the pattern of the first movement’s opening: where in the Allegro the first theme used D natural as the anchor for an intermittently rising line, here the parallel descending lines are suspended under a sounding major third (Ab-E).  Such melodic techniques (sometimes she used a centrally pivoted model) were fundamental to Bacewicz’s compositional processes.  Against this seductive ostinato, a chorus of cello and viola lyricism reaches several peaks of intensity before falling back to a brief quasi-reprise of the opening idea.

Even the exuberant finale has a second subject of wistful elegance (eloquent solos for viola and violin).  This last movement is a spirited Vivo in 6/8, a format that was a perennial favourite for Bacewicz.  It is typically vigorous, with a high-stepping theme and plentiful cross-rhythms and metrical short-circuits.  The entire Concerto exudes a buoyancy and optimism that came from Bacewicz’s renewed confidence in her technique and musical language as she and Poland recovered from the traumas of the Second World War.

The ten years that passed between the Concerto for String Orchestra and Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion were dark and troubled for all Polish composers.  The years up to the mid-1950s were a time of severe creative restrictions under the Stalin-inspired policies of socialist realism.  Bacewicz weathered these storms better than most, producing significant chamber pieces, such as the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, as well as some monumental symphonies of more transient value.

The final years of the 1950s were, in contrast, a time of unbridled excitement and experimentation in Polish music, as composers discovered what was going on in Western avant-garde music.  It was no surprise that the youngest generation seized these opportunities most readily; older composers, like Bacewicz and her near-contemporary Witold Lutosławski, then in their late 40s, were understandably more circumspect because they had already established their compositional voices.  In 1958, both composers completed works that acknowledged some of the less radical ideas of recent years: Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music for strings (a tribute to Bartók) and Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion.  After 1960, Lutosławski developed a clear new phase in his compositional career, whereas Bacewicz, despite going on to explore some experimental ideas, maintained strong ties with her neoclassical origins right up to her death, just short of her 60th birthday, in 1969.

Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion

Bacewicz, too, may be said to be paying tribute to Bartók, whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was one of the few of his pieces to be known in Poland in the 1950s.  Yet her tribute really lay elsewhere, as Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion may be viewed as a reworking, in totally new creative circumstances, of her own Concerto for String Orchestra.  It maintains its predecessor’s three-movement format and overall expressive outline.  The concerto grosso ideal now gains instrumental colour, much as some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos added brilliance to Corelli’s strings-only textures.  The five trumpets and percussion (celesta, xylophone, side-drum and timpani) are used by Bacewicz as obbligato instruments, with different percussion being highlighted in each movement (timpani and celesta in the first movement, celesta in the central Adagio and xylophone in the finale).

The first movement uncompromisingly sets out the composer’s new thematic and harmonic astringency.  Although the principal opening idea recalls the anchored ascending theme at the start of the Concerto (it is based on an open violin G), its accumulation of dissonance through perfect intervals and tritones shows the distance that Bacewicz had covered in the intervening decade.  This passage is restated with the participation of the trumpets and reaches a climactic, twelve-note chord.  The music is less severe than this description might suggest, as it is enlivened by its almost jazzy rhythmic propulsion; all the succeeding ideas are likewise based on hockets and syncopations.  For contrast, Bacewicz introduces a brief, slower, two-voice string idea, but the overriding impression, yet again, is that the outline structure is less important than shifting thematic perspectives and developmental threads based on subtle motivic undercurrents.

As in the Concerto for String Orchestra, the second movement is the expressive centre of the work.  Its initial ostinato and improvisatory duo for viola and double-bass solo are wasted shadows of their antecedents of 1948.  A fuller texture does evolve, leading to the warmer harmonic and melodic detail of a secondary theme, with its cadential obbligato of jazz-muted trumpets.  Although the music becomes rhythmically animated, it abruptly evaporates, pauses, and becomes a series of clustered trills played con sordino and sul tasto.  While the trills may recall accompanying textures from the first movement, here they have a totally disembodied presence, disintegrating into a bleak landscape of sustained and quietly reiterated semitones at the extremes of the string register.  Solitary trumpets intone a semitonal sigh, there is the most laconic of references to the opening ostinato rhythm, and the music ceases.

The Adagio’s non-repetitive structure, in which the first and second sections are counterpoised by static trills and a trumpet sigh, is one of the most experimental in Bacewicz’s output.  Yet it has been inherited from earlier approaches, as the previous works on this CD demonstrate.  Never again was she to reach out to the sense of total desolation in the closing bars of this middle movement, all but shorn as they are of motivic and harmonic character.

The work as a whole, however, would not be characteristic of the composer if it did not brush away such raw exposure with a lively finale.  The Vivace is the most conventional movement of the three, typically spirited, this time unusually including passing references to the earlier movements.  In the melting-pot of late 1950s Polish music, Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion stands out for its strength of character and purpose.  It shares with its contemporaries that vision of a new musical world that led to Polish music becoming one of the main contributors to European culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

© 2009 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: