Augustyn Plays Bacewicz

Bacewicz album front cover

BACEWICZ: Solo Violin Sonata No. 1. Polish Caprices Nos. 1 & 2 for Solo Violin. Concertino for Violin & Piano. Melody. Stained-Glass Window. Partita for Solo Violin. Scherzo for Solo Violin. Capriccio. Cradle Song.  4 Caprices for Violin Solo / Kinga Augustyn, vln; Alla Milchtein, pno / Centaur 3971

When I reviewed Kinga Augustyn’s previous Centaur CD, Turning in Time, in December of 2020, I referred to her as “a superb violinist, perhaps not as distinctive-sounding as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell but clearly a major talent. She knows how to caress a phrase without making it sound too sugary, and she knows how to push the beat when called for without making it sound awkward or abrasive. To a certain extent, her playing reminded me of Josef Szigeti but with a more beautiful tone.” I also praised her repertoire choices, all more or less modern composers, in a program that include Grazyna Bacewicz’ Solo Violin Sonata No. 2.

She returns here with an all-Bacewicz program, and again includes several pieces not frequently recorded, including two—the Partita and Scherzo for solo violin—which had not been recorded previously by anyone. This CD is scheduled for release on September 9, but I just couldn’t wait any longer to review it because it’s so good.

Those familiar with Bacewicz’ aesthetic know that she was not only one of the major composers of music for the violin, but one of the finest of all 20th-century composers. The sad thing is that, except in her native Poland, she was never quite recognized as a major composer of the century until early this century, when a plethora of recordings of her music suddenly began to emerge, but better late than never.

The Solo Violin Sonata No. 1 is typical of her style: music with almost nervous energy. Both of the solo violin sonatas have also been recorded by Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds on a Muso CD, and although I was fully engaged in Augustyn’s performance I would be loath to rid my collection of the Muso disc. Both violinists are fully committed to this music, and both do it justice in slightly different ways.

By and large, I would call Bacewicz’ music bitonal rather than atonal, particularly in her music for the violin, which was her own instrument. If you simply remove the astringent harmonies, the top lines of much of her violin music (but not all) is quite lyrical and pretty tonal. But nervous energy was part and parcel of her physiognomy. She once said that she operated on double-time and was thus able to do things twice as quickly as anyone else she knew. Much of this is in her music, yet when one hears the slow movement from this violin sonata, one realizes that she did not rush things. It’s just that ideas came to her so quickly that she scarcely had the time to write them down. The untitled third movement of this sonata almost sounds like a canon, with a continually evolving theme in a stream of eighth notes.

The Polish Caprice No. 1 is entirely lyrical, consisting of solely a top line for the violin until the fast middle section, which is where some of the spiky harmonies come in. Bacewicz also throws in some rapid key changes into this section, just to keep listeners on their toes. The second Caprice starts out in a fast tempo; at times, its melodic line almost sounds as if it were running backwards.

Much to my surprise, the brief first movement of the Concertino for piano and violin sounds like a Baroque piece, but the somewhat sad second movement, though lyrical, is in a more recognizable style for the composer. Indeed this is a very short concertino…all three movements together run only four and a half minutes! Bacewicz must really have been in a hurry when she wrote this one!

Stained-Glass Window is a very early piece (1932) which starts out very gently and lyrically but, as it goes on, contains some extraordinarily subtle key shifts, musical depictions of the changing light coming through such a window. By contrast, the first movement of solo violin partita is comprised of sharp shards of music, played at full volume, a piece certain to grab your attention, while the slow central movement is again in her lyrical-but-somewhat-bitonal style. The fast third movement combines features of both of the two preceding, using fast eighth-note figures in an asymmetric pattern to create an intriguing musical line. The scherzo for solo violin is a bitonal moto perpetuo, showing off the performer’s virtuosity while including some intriguing rubato touches along the way. It ends, abruptly, in the middle of a phrase.

The Capriccio for violin and piano is also lively, but generally more tonal and playful, though also requiring some pretty tricky bowing from the soloist. This is a real show-stopper, a great encore piece for any violinist, and Augustyn plays it to the hilt. She also gives us a breather between this piece and the equally blistering Caprices with the Cradle Song from 1952. The program ends with the solo caprices from 1968, one of Bacewicz’ last compositions, and here her harmonic sense has become much edgier, bordering on the atonal, with figures that alternate between angular, lyrical and arching in rapid fashion.

This is an absolutely splendid CD. Sometimes I really do wonder why a musically unimaginative violinist like Frank Peter Zimmermann, who can’t play with this kind of intensity in almost anything he attempts, gets so much attention and exposure while Kinga Augustyn, though well respected in the classical field, has nowhere near his reputation. If you want to hear a wonderfully intense violinist playing interesting pieces, you need to hear this CD. Incidentally, the stunning cover art was created by Lukas Wronski, a friend of Augustyn’s who is both a graphic artist and a violin-maker.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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