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Grażyna Bacewicz – 100th Anniversary

Grażina Bacewicz was born 100 years ago today in Łódź, to a Polish mother and a Lithuanian father from whom she received her first musical training. Her prodigious talent became soon obvious and she gave her fist public performances at the age of seven. Her first composition followed at thirteen. At 19 she began to study philosophy at the University of Warsaw, but after just over a year she decided to focus more on music and enrolled in the Warsaw Conservatoire where she studied violin with Józef Jarzębski, piano with Jan Turczyński, and composition with Kazimierz Sikorski.

During her time at the Conservatoire, Karol Szymanowski recommended she study at the École Normale de Musique with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, which she did in the 1930s, thanks to a scholarship from Paderewski. In Paris, she also studied with André Touret and, after touring Spain as a performer and teaching harmony in Łódz, with Carl Flesch. Part of her graduation concert was the neo-classical Wind Quintet from 1932 which won her the First Prize at the Competition of the ‘Société “Aide aux femmes de professions libres”.

She became the principle violinist of the newly established Polish Radio Orchestra in Katowice where she was able to perform some of her own compositions – including the First Violin Concerto. Several more prestigious prizes followed, including the Second Prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1949, for her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra) and the Gold Medal at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1965 for her Seventh Violin Concerto. A capable pianist as well as a violinist, she also premiered her Second Piano Sonata from 1953, which remains one of her more commonly performed compositions. It was the last composition she would perform herself, after a car accident in 1954 – at age 45 – prohibited a continuation of her professional performing career.

One of the most prolific female composers, she managed to produce over two hundred works which include four symphonies, seven violin concertos, a piano concerto, a concerto for two pianos, a double concerto for viola and cello, and numerous chamber works which include seven string quartets and five violin sonatas. Her style, although she tried to eschew the classification, is largely neo-classical. The 1948 “Concerto for Strings” being a prime exponent of this pervasive element in Bacewicz’ style. It was given its world premiere by the Washington NSO in 1950 under its second music director, Howard MitchellMilton Berliner, reviewing for the Washington Daily News, reported: “Actually, there was nothing feminine about Miss Bacewicz’s piece. It was vigorous, even virile, with a pulsing, throbbing rhythm and bold thematic material [in the first movement]. It was either conservatively modern or radically classical. In any case it was worth listening to…” It might sound somewhat patronizing to us, half a century later, but it’s obvious he meant well and was genuinely impressed.

The prescriptions of the Polish cultural apparatchiks after the war were such that much of her music tried to appease the censors (always on the lookout for “formalistic” music) with the recommended integration of Polish folk elements into their music. Her Third Violin Concerto from1948 is a good example of this – with a tone that unmistakably places Bartók at the origin of the inspiration. In the last fifteen years of her live her style didn’t so much change as it amalgamated pantonal influences of which her late string quartets speak.

available at Amazon G.Bacewicz, String Quartet No.4, Szymanowski String Quartet
Avie 2092

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Bacewicz et al., Concerto for String Orchestra, Beethoven Academy Orchestra / Pawel Przytocki

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Bacewicz, Works for Violin & Piano, J.Kurkowicz, G.Chien
Chandos 10250

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Bacewicz & Enescu,Sonatas for Violin & Piano, L.Mordkovitch / I.Fountain
Chandos 10476

UK | DE | FR
Krystian Zimerman is an ardent champion of Grażina Bacewicz’ music and at his recital at Shriver Hall, in April of 2006, he played her Sonata no. 2. The work, of which there used to exist a recording with Zimerman (onOlympia from1977, also containing Sonata No.4 for Violin & Piano, the Concerto for String Orchestra, and the Violin Concerto No.7), has its home in a black pool of deep sounds all the way on the left of the keyboard from where it jumps to life, repeatedly, into the higher register. Every one of its three movements ends contemplatively. Under Zimerman’s hands it was clear that this is a work close to his heart. The good news is that today, Zimerman will embark on a Bacewicz-tour through Łodz, Warsaw, Poznan, Krakow and Katowice where he will perform this sonata as well as the First and Second Piano Quintets–all to be recorded and then issued later in the year by Deutsche Grammophon.

Grażina Bacewicz died, not quite sixty, in 1969.

You can find a lovely and informative essay on the life and works of Grażina Bacewicz – very helpful in writing this appreciation – by Judith Rosen (originally part of Vol. 2 of the “Polish Music History Series”) online.

Recommended recordings are listed on the right: TheSzymanowski Quartet plays the Fourth String Quartet, a wonderful romantic work that is nicely placed between Haydn (op.54/2) and Dvořák (No.14 in A) on the Avie label. It’s the debut recording of the quartet on that label, and it’s very well played and well recorded. Acquiring it for either Haydn or Dvořák alone might not make sense, but I think of those quartets as setting the stage—beautifully, at that!—for the Bacewicz quartet. And as such, it might well be a first recommendation for anyone’s Bacewicz-exploration.

Her Washington-premiered Concerto for Strings can be had on a DUX release from 2006 where it shares space with her countrymen Wienawski (d-minor Violin Concerto) and Penderecki (Angus Dei, arr. for string orchestra). I also liked Chandos disc devoted to Bacewicz’ works for Violin and Piano. Joanna Kurkowicz (violin) and Gloria Chien’s take on the Fourth and Fifth Sonata, the rambunctious ditty “Oberek”, the earnest Partita, and the Capriccio (the earliest work on this disc, composed in 1946). The Polish Capriccio and the Sonata No.2 for Solo Violin (the latest, from 1958) are also included. I especially like the two Violin Sonatas and the Partita—the other works are under three minutes each, except for the 12-minute solo sonata which takes more than a couple listenings to reveal its beauty.

The Partita is also included on Chandos’ latest Bacewicz release, again with works for Violin and Piano. This time Lydia Mordkovitch and Ian Fountain play three Bacewicz works imaginatively coupled with Enescu’s Violin Sonata No.2. Bacewicz’ Sonata da camera (1945), effectively Violin Sonata No.1, is a charmer with a devil-may-care fast movement that hides its knottiness beneath the most pleasant of neoclassical veneers. Violin Sonata No.3 (1948), stormy, puckish, and contemplative in turns, could just as well have been written by Szymanowski. Perhaps an even better introduction than the all-Bacewicz disc.