• Bacewicz and Enescu (Chandos, 2008)

 

Lydia Mordkovitch Plays Bacewicz and Enescu
Chandos CHAN 10476 (2008)
Lydia Mordkovitch and Ian Fountain

• Enescu: Violin Sonata 2 in F minor (1899)
• Bacewicz: Sonata da camera (1945)
• Bacewicz: Violin Sonata 3 (1948)
• Bacewicz: Partita (1955)

 

George Enescu (1881-1955) and Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) were part of a long tradition of composer-performers from Eastern Europe.  Both studied in Paris (Enescu in the 1890s, Bacewicz in the 1930s); both were professional violinists and pianists who imbued their music with a profound knowledge of their instruments.  They each showed a healthy respect for the traditions which they inherited and an individual take on their reinterpretation.

Bacewicz was born in Łódz, in central Poland, at a time when her country was still partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia.  She came from a Polish-Lithuanian family, and while one her siblings – the composer Vytautas Baceviĉius – chose his Lithuanian roots, Bacewicz was educated and lived in Poland apart from her studies in Paris.  After the war she performed as a solo violinist as well as composing some of the works for which she is best known: the String Quartets Nos 3-5 (1947, 1951, 1955) and the Concerto for String Orchestra (1948).

Bacewicz: Sonata da camera

The Sonata da camera (1945), sometimes referred to as Violin Sonata No.1, is something of a curiosity in its close adherence to eighteenth-century stylisations.  While initially it seems to be pastiche, it surprises with unexpected twists.  These quirky moments may be harmonic (partway through the opening Largo) or metrical (the initial idea of the ensuing Allegro is a five-bar phrase): the Trio of the central Tempo di minuetto has particularly teasing metrical twists.  Even though the composer was renowned for the verve of her fast music (the concluding Gigue in 6/8 is characteristically tongue-in-cheek), the heart of her music lies in its passionate lyricism, as in the fourth movement.

Bacewicz: Violin Sonata 3

Bacewicz’s Violin Sonata no. 3 (1948) is one of her lesser-known pieces.  She premiered it in her home town on 15 February 1948, with her other brother, the pianist Kiejstut Bacewicz (they had also performed the Sonata da camera in Paris’s Salle Gaveau on 23 May 1946 and were to premiere the later Partita in Warsaw in 1955).  Bacewicz is frequently labelled a neoclassicist, but her approach is much more robust and muscular than many of her contemporaries.  The Third Violin Sonata is no exception.  The opening movement begins rhapsodically, quixotically introducing the vigorous main theme.  This is eventually followed by skittish sul ponticello tremoli introducing the second theme, whose lyricism is reminiscent of Szymanowski.  For the period (the late 1940s, when socialist-realist dogma from the Soviet Union began to dominate Polish cultural life), the Adagio is intensely lyrical and non-diatonic.  Metrical teasing and evident virtuosity mark the Scherzo, while the Finale prefers more moderate tempi than usual, in part linking back to the start of the sonata with an exploration of a descending chromatic scale.

Bacewicz: Partita

Six years were to pass before the Partita (1955). In that time, Bacewicz had won an international prize for her Fourth Quartet, composed the imposing Third Symphony (1952) and premiered her Second Piano Sonata (1953).  They were tough years for all Polish composers, yet Bacewicz managed to maintain her creative integrity as well as almost single-handedly saving Polish chamber music from extinction (socialist realism preferred monumental symphonies, simple mass songs and panegyric cantatas).  Even before the so-called ‘thaw’ set in (marked by the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival in 1956), she pursued an uncompromisingly gritty idiom in her Fifth String Quartet and the Partita (which also exists in a version for violin and orchestra).

The Partita alternates fast and slow movements, whose titles recall eighteen-century models.  The second and fourth movements – Toccata and Rondo – are virtuosic displays technically propelled by a nervous energy which rarely acknowledges a constant audible metre for long.  The Rondo also suggests origins in the mazurka’s faster cousin, the oberek, recalling clear-cut references to this dance in the finales of her Piano Concerto (1949) and Second Piano Sonata.  Once again, however, the heart of the music lies in the slow movements.  The Preludium’s trudging piano part is almost funereal, the violin rising to an impassioned climax in double-stops. The thirty-eight bars of the Intermezzo (Andante melancolico) are the most haunting of the whole work, the violin’s soliloquising put into relief by aperiodic chiming dissonances on the piano.  Bacewicz was evidently possessed by the opening melodic idea because she returned to it time and again in the works of her last decade.

Enescu: Violin Sonata 2

Whereas Bacewicz only occasionally incorporated folk styles into her music, Enescu is still best known for those works where folk traditions from his native Romania are in the foreground.  These include his ever-popular First Romanian Rhapsody (1901) and the Third Violin Sonata ‘dans le caractère populaire roumain’ (1926).  His Second Violin Sonata (1899) predates these pieces and was premiered by the violinist Jacques Thibaud, with Enescu at the piano, at the Concerts-Colonne in Paris on 22 February 1900 (Enescu had played the violin at the premiere of his First Violin Sonata, with Alfred Cortot as the pianist).

Enescu was a prodigy as both performer and composer and was not yet eighteen when he completed the Second Violin Sonata.  His world here is not Romanian, but rather German (Brahms) filtered through a French prism (Franck and Fauré).  The opening of the Assez mouvementé combines a tonally and metrically mobile theme in crotchets with a lilting motif that permeates the movement’s 9/4 metre.  There is even a string of melodic whole tones in the descending scale which occurs as part of the first subject group and again at the main climax.  In contrast, the main melody of the central movement has a simple, folk-like charm, although it develops into an impassioned arioso.  Like the first movement, the second ends introspectively, this time with a passing reference to the triadic motifs from the opening of the sonata.

Alongside metrical ambiguity, these triadic elements also return in witty guise in the opening theme of the finale (très léger et rythmé).  The invigorating interplay of the two instruments leads to a striking second subject with pounding chords on the piano (très sec) and long notes on the violin’s lowest string (très vibrant et à plein son).  This theme turns out to be nothing less than the full opening theme of the sonata, though it is cut in half by brief tremolando quavers.  Enescu continues to have fun with this familiar material until the climax where the piano reintroduces the theme of the second movement (avec une sonorité de carillon) and it becomes transparent how interlocked the sonata’s main themes are.  The recapitulation and coda toy again with these cyclic ideas, before giving way to the final pppp flourishes.

© 2008 Adrian Thomas


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