• Bacewicz: Vn Concertos II (Chandos, 2011)


Grażyna Bacewicz: Violin Concertos nos. 2, 4 and 5
Chandos CHAN 10673 (2011)
Joanna Kurkowicz, Polish Radio SO, cond. Łukasz Borowicz

• Violin Concerto no.4 (1951)
• Violin Concerto no.5 (1954)
• Violin Concerto no.2 (1945)



The figure of the composer-performer was familiar to nineteenth-century audiences, not least when composers such as Beethoven, Liszt, Wieniawski and Brahms played their own concertos.  In the first decades of the twentieth century, this phenomenon diminished, although Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev frequently performed their own works for piano and orchestra.  While few composers since have provided extended series of concertos, the Polish composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) produced just this, writing seven violin concertos between 1938 and 1965, not to mention two for cello, one concerto for piano, and one for viola.  This CD completes a project to record the set of six published violin concertos, begun with nos. 1, 3 and 7 – and played by the same forces – on CHAN 10533 (no. 6 remains in manuscript and has never been performed).

Violin Concerto no. 2

Bacewicz gave the premieres of her first four violin concertos, before almost completely retiring from the concert stage in 1953.  She performed the Second Violin Concerto (1945) for the first time on 18 October 1946, with the Philharmonic Orchestra of her home town, Łódż, under the direction of Tomasz Kiesewetter.  Its neoclassicism is evident from the start, its semiquaver rhythms and descending sequences setting the pattern for future developments.  The music is constantly on the move, less obviously reliant on clear-cut structures based on eighteenth-century forms than is that of of many other neoclassical composers.  Bacewicz was a restless spirit, whose music evolves by instinct, varying earlier material and taking new directions in an almost improvisatory manner.  The muscular vivacity of the first movement is enhanced by the highly virtuosic writing for the soloist.  The cadenza is particularly substantial.

The second movement is the lyrical heart of the concerto, with, for Bacewicz, an unusually romantic tone that recalls the idiom of her compatriot Mieczysław Karłowicz, whose own Violin Concerto (1902) drew on Tchaikowsky’s example.  The rising main theme becomes especially eloquent.  As often with Bacewicz, the return is abbreviated and the movement comes to a seemingly inconclusive end, thus giving additional emphasis to the start of the last movement.  She was fond of a dancing 6/8 metre for her finales.  Here, despite the Vivo marking, the tempo is quite steady, not least because the solo part is so full of rhythmic and technical detail.  There are also interesting orchestral touches, notably the continued prominence of the brass, following on from the colouristic roles played by violas tremolando sul ponticello in the development of the first movement and by suspended cymbals in the second.  The concerto ends with a joyful cadence in D major.

Violin Concerto no. 4

By the time she composed the Fourth Violin Concerto, in 1951, Bacewicz was at the height of her powers.  In that same year she composed eight other works, including her prize-winning Fourth String Quartet, the Second Symphony, the First Cello Concerto and the Fifth Violin Sonata.  She premiered the Fourth Violin Concerto on 21 February 1952 in Kraków, with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bohdan Wodiczko.  She did not always dedicate her works formally, but this one bears two dedications.  The manuscript score is inscribed to her composition teacher, Kazimierz Sikorski, while the dedicatee of the published piano reduction is Józef Jarzębski, her violin teacher.

1951 was the highpoint of the Polish government’s stalin-inspired doctrine of socialist realism in the arts.  This demanded an overt connection to the lives and experiences of ‘the masses’, which usually meant a simplified language and often the use of native folk tunes.  It also favoured monumentalism and an optimistic tone, especially at the end of works.  By and large, Bacewicz avoided the excesses of such injunctions, but certain compositions, such as the Third Symphony (1952), display these traits more than others.  The Fourth Violin Concerto did not escape them altogether, as the rather stern opening and its fuller orchestration demonstrate.  After a brief cadenza-like passage with timpani, the violin quickly reaches the first main theme, suspended below high E naturals.  The movement proceeds to play off martial rhythms, lyricism and playfulness in a typically impulsive way, the cadenza coming somewhat earlier in the scheme than is traditional.

The Andante tranquillo opens in a form of harmonic suspended animation, but the solo violin quickly develops an impassioned arioso, its singing tone leading eventually to a portentous orchestral tutti before returning to the delicate calmness of the opening theme.  The finale (in 3/4, with traces of folk-dance rhythms) proceeds at breakneck speed until the second subject, whose melody has clearer folk components.  The central portion of the movement dances along in 2/4 (and includes a brief transformation of the main theme from the first movement), before a freely varied recapitulation of the the two principal ideas.  The coda, returning to 2/4, brings the concerto to a rousing, folk-based conclusion.

Violin Concerto no. 5

Bacewicz composed her Fifth Violin Concerto in 1954 and it was premiered the following year, on 17 January, in Warsaw, with the soloist Wanda Wiłkomirska and the Warsaw Philharmonic under Witold Rowicki.  The prestige of its performers reinforced the fact that Bacewicz had become one of the major figures in post-war Polish music.  The concert was part of the second Festival of Polish Music, a forerunner, albeit still stylistically conservative, of the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ international festival of contemporary music that was inaugurated in 1956.

From 1954 onwards, many Polish composers were seeking more challenging goals than had been possible at the height of socialist realism, but none had yet crystallised a new voice.  Bacewicz was, however, developing an idiom of a darker, more complex hue.  Her habitually developmental approach became more tautly motivic, almost Beethovenian, as in her Fifth String Quartet (1955).  The Fifth Violin Concerto formed part of this process, in which her harmonic language also toughened its sinews, becoming bittersweet if not at times downright abrasive.  The opening tutti contrasts a striding figure with a placatory response.  The violin, characteristically, transforms the striding figure into one of lyricism before launching into a rumbustious idea that bears many hallmarks of a stomping dance.  The second subject does not remain quiet for long.  The music soon drives forward to an orchestral tutti before the cadenza which, as in Concerto no. 4, is somewhat forward of its conventional position.

The opening of the central Andante is among the most magical passages in the music of Bacewicz, and she shows again what an acute ear she had for subtle orchestral colour.  While the recurrent main theme, Molto tranquillo, has the same folk flavour as some parts of the Fourth Violin Concerto, the theme’s orchestral guise in the central section of the movement (initially on French horns) gives it a more troubled aspect, especially when set dissonantly against the semiquavers of the soloist.  Harmony, however, is finally restored.  As in the previous concertos, the slow movement comes to a rest rather than to a definite conclusion.

That definition is given to the Vivace, whose metric changes highlight Bacewicz’s imaginative compositional extemporisation.  They keep both performers and listeners on their toes.  This is arguably Bacewicz’s most sparkling finale, its folk inflections sometimes recalling those employed by Witold Lutosławski in his folk-based pieces of the early 1950s.  He, however, would never have composed the extended cantabile that acts as Bacewicz’s foil to the otherwise exuberant, syncopated nature of the movement.  The success of this work, and that of the other violin concertos by Bacewicz, is due to its capacity for introspection as well as virtuosity, which arises from her profound understanding of her instrument.  It is the seamless merging of technique and expressivity, brought to life in such a distinctive way in these works, that places Bacewicz in the front rank of composer-performers of the mid-twentieth century.

© 2011 Adrian Thomas


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