Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A personal and progressive sound

Every once in a while you come across a composer whose music sounds completely assured, with an obvious confidence in her abilities, and as you hear more you can make out a personal sound, without stereotyping or self-plagiarizing. Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) had these admirable qualities, but there is more: the ability to surprise the listener. As she herself said, "A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself." Her string quartet cycle, from the first in 1939 to the seventh in 1965, represents a wide stylistic range. There is a major shift from the folkloric first quartet, written during Bacewicz's student days in the early 1930s (she studied under Nadia Boulanger), to the fully modernist second quartet a decade later. There's an appealing formality and grace to the quartets 3-5, which date from her neo-classical period, though there's often an bite to her themes or a edge to her musical arguments. The sixth quartet of 1960 brings a completely new and avant-garde sound world; this is one of her strongest works. The final quartet, from 1965, remains stylistically modernist, but with a classic structure. Each new quartet brings new ideas and new styles, but the energy and drive remain, as do the slightest hints (after the first quartet) of middle European folkloric music. A gifted violinist, Bacewicz is one of those composers who demonstrates in her quartets a complete knowledge of string technique; besides the seven quartets, she wrote violin concertos, sonatas for violin solo and with piano, and even a quartet for four violins.

Just as Bacewicz developed her own voice while making use of modernist techniques, she helped to bring international musical styles to Poland through her teaching and involvement in juries; composers like Lutoslawski recognized her leadership. She reminds me in many ways of Villa-Lobos, who also leaves an important string quartet cycle representing his entire compositional career, beginning with an early folkloric work and moving to modernism and beyond. Bacewicz was more disciplined, and her more collegial style has given Poland's musical life advantages that Brazil's might have profited from.

I was surprised to see this new two-CD set from the Silesian Quartet come out so soon after the very good Naxos set with the Lutoslawski Quartet from 2012. Both are fine recordings with excellent sound, though I'd give the new one a slight edge.  Though this doubling up is perhaps a sign that Bacewicz is attaining a higher reputation, there are many unrecorded works that recording companies need to get on ASAP. We're waiting.

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