More Music by Bacewicz

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BACEWICZ: Divertimento for String Orchestra. Sinfonietta for Strings. Symphony for String Orchestra. Concerto for String Orchestra / Amadeus Chamber Orch. of Polish Radio; Agnieszka Duczmal, cond / Dux 1828

The legend, and legacy, of Grazyna Bacewicz continues to grow. Like Mieczysław Weinberg, she was barely a blip on the musical radar screen in the 1990s, but now she is firmly established (as he is) as among the greatest of Polish-born composers. This CD, Vol. 3 in a series of which I never was able to obtain the first two volumes for review, covers almost the full range of her work as a composer. The Sinfonietta dates from 1935, the Symphony and Concerto from the 1940s, and the opening Divertimento from 1965 (she died, aged 60, in 1969).

By now my readers know how enthusiastic I am about all of her music as well as having a handle on her composition style. Bacewicz combined lyricism and energy, modern harmonies and traditional forms, in her own personal musical mélange. One recognizes elements of Stravinsky and Bartók without claiming direct references. She worked quickly, setting inspiration down on music paper within minutes of when an idea struck her; indeed, she often claimed to be running on “a fast clock,” able to do things in a few hours or days that took other composers weeks or months to do. She was the Energizer Bunny of composers.

Yet despite writing quite a bit of music, nothing she wrote sounds perfunctory or routine. She had a few different “voices” as a composer and worked within a combination of inspiration and reflective organization. As one can hear in the first movement of the Sinfonietta, she had a firm grasp of counterpoint gained from her personal experience playing the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas on her violin. On first listening to any of these works, it sounds as if she simply piled one audacious theme or motif on another, but in reflection one realizes how well-knit this music is. She liked jumping around in her themes, but always ended up making each movement of each work sound inevitable.

And yet, once she found her way, she rarely “advanced” her compositional style. Thus the 1935 Sinfonietta does not sound less “mature” than her 1965 Divertimento; there is a strong kinship between these two works despite their using different themes, key choices and rhythms. Another interesting aspect of her work is that her slow movements never sound functionally “pretty” or relaxed. Since her musical mind was always churning with ideas, even her slow music had a certain edge to it.

The Symphony is written in a slightly different style from the first two pieces, being a modified Neoclassic style. In this work Bacewicz blended her themes and variants together seamlessly; there is much less juxtaposition and jumping around as in the previous two works. And here, there really is a feeling of repose in the slow movement, which uses open chord positions to achieve its effects, similar to but a little different from the way Aaron Copland worked in the 1940s. It is also developed much longer than the other movements, and the third movement is an “Allegretto,” not quite a scherzo, before she moves on to the fourth and last movement, a “Theme with variations.” This begins at a moderately slow pace, gradually picking up in tempo as it goes along. The theme that Bacewicz used is a modal one, and thus a little difficult to grasp for the casual listener, but she makes much more out of it than one might be led to expect when it is first heard. Moreover, it goes on for a surprisingly long (for her) period of time, nearly eight minutes.

To my ears, the Concerto for String Orchestra also has a different form despite the by-now-expected “edgy” use of the string sections. This music manages to combine elements of Baroque composition with Neoclassicism in a seamless fusion. The first movement, after a rather furious workout, ends suddenly and abruptly, while the second, built around a simple nine-note theme based on modal harmonies, is played largely by soft, high violins which gradually increase in volume as the theme expands and changes. The bustling third movement is more of a fun piece, close to “normal” tonality and extremely rhythmic, yet there is a relaxed section about two-thirds of the way through it.

These performances by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra are simply scintillating. While Deutsche Grammophon and the Brits hold up Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla as a paragon of female conductors, Agnieszka Duczmal has been thrilling Polish audiences for decades with her crisp, incisive readings of all the classic, old and modern. This is a wonderful recording all around!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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