One of the great violinist-composers, Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) also played the piano, making her a formidably-equipped creative artist. She was born in Łódź to a Lithuanian father and Polish mother, who brought up their sons as Lithuanian and their daughters as Polish. Her father was the conductor Vincas Bacevičius and her brothers, Vytautas and Kęstutis Bacevičius, were respectively composer and pianist. Besides composition, in which her teacher was Kazimierz Sikorski, she studied piano and violin at the Warsaw Conservatory; and it was as a violinist that she made her name (her teachers included André Touret and Carl Flesch). But in 1932-35 she undertook further composition studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. A serious car accident in 1954 led her to concentrate on composition and writing fiction, and she died three weeks before her sixtieth birthday.
Before I get on to the specific merits of this splendid release, it may be helpful if I survey the recording history of the two Piano Quintets, the first of which is one of Bacewicz’s best-loved chamber works, along with the Fourth String Quartet. I have not come across a recording of it from the mono era, even though it was in the repertoire of the famous Warsaw Quintet. The Second Piano Quintet of 1965 was dedicated to this ensemble but for some reason was not premiered until after the composer’s death. The Warsaw Quintet finally got round to recording both works on an LP in 1979, by which time only Władysław “The Pianist” Szpilman and the great violist Stefan Kamasa remained of the original line-up. The performances were excellent and were duly reissued on two separate Olympia CDs, coupled with various String Quartets. These recordings now sound just a little coarse, despite the quality of the playing. The Warsaw Quintet lapsed but was revived in 2003 with Konstanty Kulka, first violin, Krzysztof Bąkowski, second, the ageless Kamasa, viola, Rafał Kwiatkowski, cello, and Krzysztof Jabłoński as pianist. In 2005 they made a lovely recording of the First Quintet, coupling it with a Warsaw Quintet speciality, the Quintet by Juliusz Zarębski (Dux 0530). Then in 2011 came something rather unexpected. On 5 February 2009, Bacewicz’s centenary, Krystian Zimerman had given a special concert in her birthplace consisting of both Quintets separated by the Second Piano Sonata. His colleagues had been an old friend, the distinguished violinist Kaja Danczowska, the young violinist Agata Szymczewska, the violist Ryszard Groblewski and the cellist Kwiatkowski from the Warsaw Quintet. After repetitions in Warsaw, Poznań, Cracow and Katowice, they had taken their programme straight into the studio – the same hall where this Chandos issue was recorded. For me, Zimerman and friends produced perhaps the finest Bacewicz programme ever set down on record (DG 477 8332). They took risks with the slow movements of the Quintets, playing them more slowly than anyone else, but achieved such concentration that the interpretations worked; and they were beautifully recorded. There was never any feeling that they were an ad hoc ensemble: even though Szymczewska had not played a lot of chamber music, she matched the others perfectly.
The First Quintet, in four movements, is from the height of Bacewicz’s second period, when she had shed all her apprentice qualities and was writing with complete assurance. The idiom is very much influenced by folk music but is highly sophisticated. The first movement begins and ends slowly and quietly; in between comes a springy Allegro with a number of tempo modifications. Bacewicz marshals her various motifs with great but unobtrusive skill – a string unison heard at the start will permeate the entire Quintet – and the result is very attractive. Acting as a Scherzo is a Presto which uses the dance rhythm of the oberek: the effect is sparkling, with a good deal of pizzicato. The third movement is an intense, atmospheric Grave which in places evokes tolling bells; and the highly rhythmic Finale, marked Con passione and ending Grandioso, makes use of two main ideas and shows that Bacewicz knows her counterpoint.
The three-movement Second Quintet finds Bacewicz in her final period, trying to come to terms with the myriad ideas that have flooded into Polish music via the Cultural Thaw. It is more obviously contemporary, with some slightly weird intervals, but displays the same keen ear for string and piano sonority. Particularly noticeable are the glissandos in both the piano and string parts. Even so, she uses some ideas from the 1955 Partita for violin and piano.The intense opening movement starts Moderato but takes in several tempo changes including Allegro and Molto allegro. The impression is often quite witty, despite the intensity. The Larghetto often exudes a sense of ‘night music’ full of nocturnal sounds, although the piano part is quite percussive ¬– Bacewicz also plays about with the piano decay and the contrasts in dynamic can be startling. The Allegro giocoso is marvellously light and fleet, very delicate.
The earliest work here is the 1949 Quartet for violins, in three movements, for which the Silesian Quartet’s two violinists play first and fourth. It is quite a brief work, taking just ten minutes. The first movement, Allegretto leading to Allegro giocoso, has wonderful folk-music effects, with three basic themes; the central Andante tranquillo is very beautiful; and the Molto allegro is great fun, dancing along.
What a contrast with the twelve-and-a-half-minute Quartet for cellos, from 1963, where in the opening Narrazione Bacewicz largely avoids the typical broad cello cantilena – or claims to. In fact it is impossible to avoid it altogether. Glissandos are noticeable and, every now and again, the soundworld inevitably brings Villa-Lobos to mind. Although the overall impression is quite dark, the cello’s wide range comes to the composer’s aid. The second and final movement, Riflessioni, is quite different, immensely atmospheric with string effects including col legno.
The performances of all four works are very fine. Tempos in the two Quintets fall in with the main consensus, Wojciech Świtała is a sensitive pianist and the stringplayers confirm the good impression they created in Bacewicz’s complete Quartets. The four-violin piece could hardly be better played, and the performance by the Polish Cello Quartet, who have been together since 2011, is absolutely spiffing. Although the Quintets have taken more than seven years to reach us – goodness knows why – they are well recorded, as are the two shorter works. If your main interest is in the Quintets, the DG disc reigns supreme for refinement and rhythmic subtlety – unless you have a doctrinal objection to the broader speeds in the slow movements. You also get Zimerman’s superb performance of the Second Sonata, which Szpilman used to play. If the Chandos programme appeals, you can buy with confidence.
The presentation is attractive and the notes by Adrian Thomas – who must know more about Bacewicz than anyone else writing in English – are genuinely helpful. As with his essay for the Quartets, I would like a few more biographical ‘fixes’ to aid my lateral thinking, but he certainly knows the music well.