Grażyna Bacewicz [Ronald Corp/Hyperion]

0 of 5 stars

Concerto for String Orchestra
Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion

New London Orchestra
Ronald Corp

Recorded 11 & 12 February 2009 in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: November 2009
Duration: 67 minutes



Recorded to mark the centenary of the birth of Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) and sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, this release celebrates one of the lesser-known figures of Polish music, a prolific composer and virtuoso violinist, whose music has fallen out of favour both internationally and to a certain extent in her homeland too. Nowhere near as well known as her near-contemporaries Lutosławski and Panufnik, Bacewicz (as Adrian Thomas points out in his informative booklet note), belongs to that relatively rare group of violinist-composers – she was a noted virtuoso, was good enough to be leader of the Polish Radio Orchestra for a time and toured as a soloist in the years following World War Two. Perhaps not surprisingly, she favoured composing for strings and amongst her compositions are no less than seven each of string quartets and violin concertos, not to mention concertos for viola and cello and various other solo/ensemble pieces.

Stylistically, most of the music recorded here falls into what might be called ‘European Neo-Classicism’ – on a number of occasions whilst listening to the Concerto and the Sinfonietta, English composers came to mind, Alan Rawsthorne perhaps, or Lennox Berkeley (perhaps not so surprising as Bacewicz, like Berkeley, studied in Paris in the 1930s), but with a dash of East European rhythmic verve, probably more of the Martinů than Bartók variety. Having said that, the music is by no means derivative; here is a deeply serious and individual musical voice, which whilst hardly shaking the rafters of twentieth-century music, certainly does not deserve the negelct that Bacewicz’s scores seem to have suffered.

The best known and probably best work here is Concerto for Strings (1948), which has all the ingredients of a classic; indeed it would be nice to hear this as an alternative to some of the well-worn pieces of the string repertoire. The slow movement is particularly beautiful and its shimmering textures are well caught by the New London Orchestra, whereas I sometimes felt that the upper strings sounded a little underpowered in the more vigorous sections of the first movement. Sinfonietta (1935), despite its title, is not especially ‘light’ but has a youthful exuberance that conductor and orchestra seem to enjoy.

Symphony (1946) seems to be making a great effort to be ‘serious’ and to that end is not as effective as the pieces just mentioned; the instrumental lines are cleaner and textures less busy, but this has been replaced by a rather unconvincing bleakness – apparently the composer excluded it from her list of works and maybe she knew best! Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion comes from the late 1950s, a time of great experimentation for Polish composers; but, here again, although undeniably well-crafted, the piece just doesn’t hang together. The trumpet and percussion parts seem to be tagged on in an effort to make the piece sound ‘modern’.

One or two tiny reservations aside, the New London Orchestra and Ronald Corp deliver energetic and committed performances, superbly recorded. This release will certainly be of interest to anyone interested in orchestral music of the mid-twentieth-century, the Concerto and the Sinfonietta both being a delight, this release worth acquiring just for them.

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