• Bacewicz: Vn Concertos I (Chandos, 2009)


Grażyna Bacewicz: Violin Concertos nos. 1, 3 and 7
Chandos CHAN 10533 (2009)
Joanna Kurkowicz, Poloish Radio SO, cond. Łukasz Borowicz

• Violin Concerto no.7 (1965)
• Violin Concerto no.3 (1948)
• Violin Concerto no.1 (1937)
• Overture (1943)


The name of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) may not be as familiar as those of her compatriots and near contemporaries Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) and Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91), but her impact on Polish music in the middle of the twentieth century was no less significant.  She studied initially in her home town, Łódź, then in Warsaw, and finally in Paris in the early 1930s: composition with Nadia Boulanger and violin with André Touret and Carl Flesch.  She then returned to Poland where she spent the Second World War and where she wrote the first orchestral work which she acknowledged.


The Overture (1943) is a persuasive example of Bacewicz’s combination of French neoclassicism and her innate and robust rhythmic drive. It begins with the same rhythmic motif on the timpani – in morse code, V – that the BBC borrowed as its wartime ‘Victory’ call signal from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Whether this was deliberate on Bacewicz’s part is impossible to tell, but it is notable that Panufnik’s wartime Tragic Overture also uses this rhythmic idea extensively.  Bacewicz’s Overture proceeds with vigorous Baroque figuration to build a powerful opening paragraph.  There soon follows an Andante whose bucolic nature, reminiscent of Nielsen, provides only a brief respite from the disturbed and almost frantic movement of its surroundings.  The Overture then develops symphonically, but even the occasional triumphant moment or hint of folk dance cannot mask its underlying fever.

Violin Concerto no.1

Bacewicz’s experience as a performer was central to her musical imagination.  She led the Polish Radio Orchestra in 1936-38 and continued to perform as a concerto soloist after the Second World War (she played Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto in Paris in 1946, with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux under Paul Kletzki, a fellow native of Łódź).  She gave the premiere of her own First Violin Concerto in March 1938 with the Polish Radio orchestra under the distinguished conductor, Grzegorz Fitelberg.  It remained unpublished for the next sixty years, and evidently Bacewicz thought of it as a student composition.  Nevertheless it has great charm and a quirky character which manifests itself in the concision of its three movements and Bacewicz’s inventiveness.

The concerto begins with a quasi-improvisatory display by the soloist (there is no cadenza elsewhere).  Even when the orchestra properly engages, the music’s skittish motivic and metrical displacements keep performers and listeners on their toes.  In the central Andante, the lyrical tone predominates, interrupted only towards the end by an eerie passage where orchestral string harmonics are combined with high woodwind (Bacewicz’s use of individual orchestral colours is a feature of the concerto).  The finale opens in 6/8, her favourite metre for last movements.  Here she contrasts it sharply with an idea in 2/4, capturing the joie de vivre for which she was much loved by her friends and colleagues.

Violin Concerto no.3

If the First Violin Concerto refers in its early twentieth-century manner to the classical divertimento, much of the Third (1948) breathes the same folk air as Szymanowski’s works from the late 1920s and 1930s.  Bacewicz had occasionally coloured her music with folk elements, but here she both quoted folk tunes from the mountain districts of southern Poland and complemented them with her own ideas along the same lines.  The first movement, according to Bacewicz, is not influenced by folksong, yet it is hard not to hear inflections, for example in the orchestral introduction.  As is usual, the recapitulation (which comes after the cadenza) is abbreviated.

Bacewicz indicated that the opening melody of the Andante is based on a ‘very little known but very beautiful song’.  This gives way to a related and delicately scored second subject where the soloist’s trills accompany a two-voiced texture on flute and clarinet.  The top line is formed by one of many Tatra mountain melodies with a descending line.  Such falling melodies, also used by Szymanowski, are associated with a famous nineteenth-century mountain guide and musician, Jan Krzeptowski ‘Sabała’.  The ensuing climax presents the Sabała melody in stacked fourths and the tune dominates the rest of the movement.  The final Vivo is a carefree rondo cast as an oberek, the fast cousin of the mazurka. Szymanowski had used this dance for the finale of his Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra (1932) and Bacewicz followed his footsteps both here and in other works such as her Piano Concerto (1949) and Second Piano Sonata (1953).  The concerto as a whole played to Bacewicz’s strengths as a violinist – a combination of lyrical warmth and great vivacity. She gave the premiere on 4 March 1949 with the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Śledziński.

Violin Concerto no.7

By the time that she came to write her Seventh Violin Concerto in 1965, Bacewicz had given up her performing career.  On this occasion the premiere, on 14 January 1966 in Brussels, was given by the Spanish violinist Agustín León Ara (who had studied in Brussels and taught there until 1992), with the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Sternefeld.  Bacewicz had lost none of her skill as a composer for violin and orchestra but by this point had shifted stylistically in response to the explosion of avantgarde music in Poland that had been created by the younger generation of Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.

The Seventh Violin Concerto still abides by the traditional three-movement format, yet its musical world is quixotic, allusive and improvisatory (curiously recalling aspects of the First Violin Concerto in this regard), with short ideas and sections combined with sudden changes of instrumentation, mood and direction.  Nevertheless, amidst the welter of contemporary ideas there are still traces of the neoclassical impulses that drove her music in earlier decades and these provide much of the motivic backbone of the concerto, alongside her keen ear for instrumental colour.  Her searching lyrical gifts are especially apparent in the middle movement.  If the Largo poses more expressive questions than it answers, the vigorous finale presents a fascinating insight into the continuing centrality to her music of 6/8 metre, however subverted rhythmically and texturally.

© 2009 Adrian Thomas


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