• Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets (Chandos, 2016)

Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets

Chandos CHAN 10904(2) (2016)
Silesian Quartet

• String Quartet no.1 (1938)
• String Quartet no.2 (1943)
• String Quartet no.3 (1947)
• String Quartet no.4 (1951)
• String Quartet no.5 (1955)
• String Quartet no.6 (1960)
• String Quartet no.7 (1965)

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) pursued three musical careers until she was in her forties.  Although she considered herself primarily a composer, she was also an accomplished pianist and professional violinist with orchestral and solo experience at home and abroad.  She premiered her First Violin Concerto in 1938, her Second Piano Sonata in 1953, and a number of her works for violin and piano, such as the Fifth Violin Sonata (1952), with her brother, the pianist Kiejstut Bacewicz (1904-93).  She left the concert stage after a serious car accident in 1954.

Bacewicz was Polish-Lithuanian (Polish mother, Lithuanian father).  She and her three siblings were born and brought up in Łódż, an industrial city in the centre of Poland as it is today (the country was then still under the partition and occupation among Russia, Prussia and Austria that had driven Chopin out of the country in 1830).  It was a creative household, with three of the four children becoming significant musical figures.  The oldest was Kiejstut.  The second-born, the composer Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-70), identified with the Lithuanian side of the family, while the youngest, Wanda (1914-2011), became a writer.  Their lives were conditioned by the political and military events of their time, and Bacewicz, like her better-known colleagues such as Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, reflected not only these traumas but also the shifting stylistic currents of twentieth-century music.

Her seven string quartets, written between 1938 and 1965, are a telling barometer of these changes.  They also stand as a timeline of her resolute compositional outlook and as a testament to her profound understanding of string instruments.  Three early and discarded contributions to one side (Two Double Fugues, 1928, and two quartets, 1930 and 1931) may be put to one side.  String Quartet no.1 comes after her studies in Paris in 1932-35 with Nadia Boulanger (composition), André Touret and Carl Flesch (both violin), no.2 was written in Warsaw during World War II, nos 3, 4 and 5 date from the post-war decade, a time of socialist-realist cultural upheavals, while nos 6 and 7 were composed during the avant-garde musical explosion that thrust Polish music onto the world stage in the late 1950s.

String Quartet no.1 (1938)
Bacewicz was ruthless in shelving works that, in her view, did not come up to the mark, even if subsequently they have reached new and appreciative audiences.  After their first performances, this quartet and its successor remained hidden until they were published and performed again thirty years after her death.  The First Quartet was premiered in Paris in April 1939 by a quartet led by the Puerto Rican violinist José Figueroa, whom Bacewicz had met during her studies with Boulanger.

The First Quartet is contemporaneous with the First Violin Concerto (CHAN 10533) and shares with it a refreshing disregard for a straightforward musical argument.  The opening section of the Moderato, while giving a nod towards a Classical exposition, has an elusive, preparatory air.  The first idea, on the two violins, develops immediately (this is a Bacewicz trait) and is soon followed by two subsidiary motifs: a three-note striding descent, which subsequently becomes an important chordal punctuation, and a skittish staccato rhythm played sul ponticello.  The central section is dominated by the chords and a delicately tripping texture, before a hint of the first idea is followed by an exact repetition of the subsidiary motifs and a final reprise of the opening.

The Andante tranquillo – a theme (mostly in 3/8 metre) and five variations – is more straightforward and overtly lyrical, although the third and fourth variations are noticeably less stable.  The fifth variation acts as a double recapitulation of the theme. Bacewicz reached back into her childhood for this melody.  It is a demure Lithuanian folksong, ‘Vai žydėk, žydėk’, in which the singer exhorts a white, dry and leafless apple tree to ‘flower, flower’.  The jaunty finale has folkdance overtones and fugal aspirations, although its main thrust is to wrong-foot the listener.  For the most part it is nominally in 2/4, but Bacewicz frequently undermines and cuts across the metre with teasing ingenuity.

String Quartet no.2 (1943)
Bacewicz spent most of the Second World War in Warsaw with her husband and their baby daughter, Alina (b. 1942).  Her best-known composition was the defiant orchestral Overture (1943).  The Second String Quartet was premiered in May 1943 in one of the city’s artistic cafes, run by the composer and pianist Bolesław Woytowicz.  The quartet was led by one of the foremost Polish violinists of the time, Eugenia Umińska, the other distinguished players including the future head of the postwar Polish Music Publishers PWM, Tadeusz Ochlewski.

How composers dealt with their wartime traumas varied hugely. Panufnik’s Tragic Overture (1942) is disturbed, while Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941) is joyous.  Bacewicz’s Second String Quartet lies closer to Lutosławski: remarkably unruffled, even if darker currents are occasionally sensed.  It is more conventionally neoclassical in idiom than its predecessor, more evidently tonal and regular in metre.  The outer movements run along seemingly without a care in the world, although Bacewicz’s impulse to extemporise thematically now seems self-contained rather than liberated.  The woven textures, calling to mind Debussy and Szymanowski, afford moments of illumination and repose, and the viola is given a significant lyrical role, especially in the first movement.

The lyrical core of the work, as in so many of her subsequent pieces, lies in the central movement, where the subdued, chromatic opening is counterbalanced by a folk-style idea, part mazurka, part lullaby (viola again).  The quietly dissonant conclusion is followed, if not resolved, by the finale, whose carefree nature is embodied by the silky manner in which Bacewicz slips into 6/8 partway through.

String Quartet no.3 (1947)
Having survived the war almost unscathed, Bacewicz wrote two works, the Third Quartet and the Concerto for String Orchestra (1948), which have become her best known.  They show a composer totally at ease expressively and technically, manifesting a taut combination of vigour and subtlety.  Bacewicz composed the Third Quartet while on a concert tour in Paris, and its French ancestry is readily apparent.  The premiere was given in December 1947, at a PWM concert in Kraków, by the Kraków Quartet.

The chugging introduction of the Allegro ma non troppo offsets two lyrical themes, while the reticent second subject gives rise to a motif (a descendant of the opening of the First Quartet) that is central to the short development.  The underlying sonata structure is typically disguised by thematic distractions, as in the reconfiguring of the recapitulation. The main theme of the Andante is initially diatonic but moves quickly into more modern realms, as do the accumulated sonorities and motivic flickers of the secondary idea.  The thematic reminder at the end is a foretaste of one of Bacewicz’s favourite devices, the abbreviated reprise.

The diatonic hints of the first two movements are given free rein in the vivacious finale, as is the increasing use of sequences to move the music into new territory.  The first main melody is given to the viola (F major), the second has the air of a popular song (G major), while the chromatic inflections of the third clearly recall Bartók (A major).  The next whole-tone step would be B major, the underlying chord that closed the first movement.  Bacewicz presents a momentary, Bartókian confrontation between F major and B natural just before the end.  Whatever the links, these melodic and tonal elements are tied together by the light-touch motoric propulsion for which she became famous.

String Quartet no.4 (1951)
At a time of creative repression, when the Polish socialist government followed the Soviet line of art for the masses (typified by the exhortation to use folk music as material), it was difficult for composers to balance their personal creative instincts with the requirement to address common needs.  Bacewicz largely ignored such pressures, was the foremost advocate of non-programmatic music and almost single-handedly kept the genre of the string quartet alive during the postwar decade.  Moreover, this Fourth Quartet won first prize at the First International Competition for Composers of a String Quartet at Liège, where the Quatuor Municipal premiered it in September 1951.  This cemented her position as one of the leading Polish composers of the time.

Whereas the Second Quartet shows marginal evidence of being influenced by circumstances, the Fourth is newly sombre, apart from the finale.  The main themes of the first movement are less forthright than the surrounding ideas, as if Bacewicz is turning convention inside out, and the movement vibrates under the power of such disparities.  The initial idea, despite its great presence, is discarded.  The unusually retiring first subject is in the style of a simple mazurka.  It abandons its opening canon between the two violins to accumulate harmonic resonances before being disrupted by chords, Allegro energico (each of the movement’s themes has its own tempo).  The second subject is another of Bacewicz’s pale ruminations (melancolico, p dolce), where the cello is imaginatively cradled by the other instruments.  A contrasting section, the liveliest of the movement, replaces a development and returns at the coda.

The Andante also has an unrelated central section, with its attempts at fugato, but it remains an episode in a movement of harmonic richness and delicate textures.  The principal idea is folk-like and generically close to the first subject of the preceding movement, and it leads to passages that range from the impassioned to the exquisite.  The final Allegro giocoso lives up to its description, setting out as a cheeky gigue.  Characteristically, Bacewicz allows enticing new ideas to interject, as if impatient to join the dance, the textures dissolving and regrouping in virtuosic fashion.

String Quartet no.5 (1955)
All of Bacewicz’s string quartets follow a three-movement pattern of fast-slow-fast apart from Nos 5 and 6.  Also a prizewinner at the annual competition in Liège, in 1956, and premiered by the Quatuor Municipal in June that year, the Fifth Quartet has four movements.  It is also arguably the most ambitious and accomplished of the set.  Its intensity is Beethovenian while its motivic concentration brings it close to middle-period Bartók.  The tonal and harmonic language makes a decisive break with those of its predecessors, and integration is a principal facet both of the work as a whole and of individual movements.

Bacewicz treats the customary sonata structure with a curious mixture of reverence and disregard.  Where the introduction of the Fourth Quartet was transitory, here the introductory idea resurfaces at key junctures as well as having a subtle influence elsewhere.  Perhaps the most striking aspect is the dramatic balance Bacewicz achieves between the kinetic energy of the first subject group and the remote stillness of the second.  This latter idea shows her acute sense of string colour: a folk-style theme in artificial harmonics, counterpointed ostinati (both arco and pizzicato) and a pedal harmonic.

The quest for integration takes a very specific path in the Scherzo (Fuga).  It is a double fugue of great wit and verve. Each instrument begins the subject of the first fugue begins for on different beats of the 3/8 metre and the subject is itself syncopated.  The music evaporates in trills and glissandi.  Enter the second, shorter fugue in 2/4 and its amiable grotesquerie.  After a brief allusion to the opening of the first movement, Bacewicz shows her technical panache by combining the two subjects.

The third movement, Corale, is one of her most remarkable.  It is eloquently dissonant, its solemnity relieved only briefly by the short quasi-recitatives and fugatos of the middle section.  The finale is a theme and six variations.  Not for Bacewicz a classically simple theme: hers is already a racy variation, its metre changing virtually every bar, with tutti pizzicati masking its motivic and harmonic basis.  Each variation has a distinct persona, creating a compendium that encapsulates the many moods of this unusual quartet.

String Quartet no.6 (1960)
In its historical Polish context, in the no-man’s land between the outgoing socialist realism and the incoming avant-garde from the West, the Fifth Quartet was advanced, especially in its dissonance.  As it happened, the new music explosion heralded by the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival, in 1956, soon overtook Bacewicz.  By the time that she wrote No.6 (it was premiered at the Fourth ‘Warsaw Autumn’ in September 1960, by the Quatuor Parrenin) she was already playing catch-up with her younger, more experimental colleagues.

In the Sixth Quartet, Bacewicz partially adopted twelve-note principles, but not without some creative anguish. Twelve-note traces are evident in the first movement, but thereafter the music becomes more loosely chromatic.  She was able to proceed by matching this new atonality with familiar motivic gestures and, especially in the faster movements, her customary rhythmic élan.  There is little backtracking formally: all four movements extend the non-repetitive, developmental trends heard in earlier pieces.

The elusive presentation of the first movement has its ancestry in preceding quartets, and Bacewicz embraces the in-vogue pointillism with her customary aural acuity.  The mercurial scherzo resembles a series of rapid-fire variations, while the Grave downplays motivic content to emphasise shifting harmonies and textures.  This is perhaps the closest Bacewicz ever came to the new, athematic sonorities that so entranced other Polish composers at the time.  True to herself, she ends the quartet, tongue in cheek, with a scuttling quasi-rondo fragmented by avant-garde gestures.

String Quartet no. 7 (1965)
When her Seventh Quartet was premiered in May 1966, in Łancut, Poland, by the Dimov Quartet from Bulgaria, Bacewicz was recovering from a year that had been busy even by her standards.  In 1965 she had composed eight pieces, including her Seventh Violin Concerto, Second Piano Quintet and two orchestral works.  There is the sense that she was working against time, not least because some of these works share musical ideas.  Bacewicz was going through a process of retrenchment, seeking for balance between her ordered musical past and the untamed present. Conventional forms may be more discernible, thematic recurrences more classically regular and tonal centres clearer, yet the musical atmosphere sometimes borders on the unhinged.

The Seventh Quartet is one of the least hidebound of the prolific output of 1965.  Following precedent, the ideas of the opening section seem introductory, short-lived and transitional.  It is left to the low tessitura and grinding dissonances of the sustained second subject to provide stability (a stark reduction, perhaps, of the slow movement from the Sixth Quartet).  Unpredictability soon returns in the development and the reprise, where the second subject is notable by its absence.  It is quite possible that Bacewicz did not want to pre-empt at close quarters the strange austerity of the central Grave, which inhabits a world of grim, dislocated spectres.

The finale, Con vivezza, is an ingenious and catchy rondo.  Its opening bars give a good idea of the clever way in which Bacewicz rethought the notion of a fast finale, here incorporating irregular rhythmic pulse, registral displacement and textural hiccups.  It is akin to deconstruction, where the joke is only partly understood without knowledge of the music’s ancestry, in this instance the six earlier string quartets.  Bacewicz is one of the few postwar composers who have succeeded in writing music that is authentically playful.

© 2016 Adrian Thomas


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