GRAZYNA BACEWICZ: Violin Concertos 2, 4, and 5 – Joanna Kurkowicz, violin/ Polish Radio Symphony Orch./ Lukasz Borowicz – Chandos CHAN 10673, 63:47 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
The 20th century has given the violin concerto only a passing nod. Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote only two each; Bartok wrote two, but the first was such a youthful effort that when people say “Bartok’s Violin Concerto,” they mean the Second; Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Berg wrote one each. Poland’s Grażyna Bacewicz wrote seven. Do you know another composer who has written seven violin concertos? Someone from the 18th century perhaps, like Telemann (who actually wrote 14). It’s an extraordinary feat, particularly when you realize that all of Bacewicz’s concertos are good.
The earliest one on this disc, No. 2, was written in 1945. Like Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, it opens in a perky mood, conveying liveliness and post-war optimism (although Shostakovich’s symphony is actually satirical). The andante is soulful and somewhat nostalgic, with a slight elegiac tone for a few bars. The ending Vivo is sparky—showy even—with virtuosic effects you’d expect from a violinist-composer like Bacewicz.
No. 4 shows a bit more development in thematic richness. It starts with forcefully declarative orchestral strains like typical late 19th-century romantic works. After a fairly conventional four-minute introduction, the violin fireworks begin and feature an impressive cadenza by Ms. Kurkowicz, one with gently lyrical as well as forcefully dramatic strains. The andante proceeds with a desolate arioso and some foreboding figures, but its ending mood is more delicate than disconsolate (unlike Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto). The finale is another tour de force with what must be Polish dance rhythms interjected here and there, amid some slower sections providing the violinist a chance to catch her breath. No. 5 features richer harmonic language than the previous concertos, such as sly interjections of dissonance and new effects like motoric outbursts. Some energetic first movement segments surprise the listener with brief diminuendos of reflection. The andante shows some advance over previous concertos, with its spooky shimmering effects and dark violin coloration. Yet its central theme is far more coherent, easier to follow, and only probes the brink of the Pit of Despair – it doesn’t plunge the listener into it. So all is not lost, as the concerto ushers you into the opening whimsicality of the Vivace movement. Its sharp syncopation foretells work of later composers like Ligeti and Lutoslawsky, but with a poignancy balance beam in place. This is one highly-developed piece.
In a review two years ago of what was the first volume of these concertos, I said that “Kurkowicz may be the one who introduced a new generation of Americans to this composer’s beguiling creations.” I was right. I hope she continues her work with more of the composer’s works, perhaps some of her chamber pieces. I am perplexed by what she says in the program notes: “I wonder about Violin Concerto No. 6, which Bacewicz never performed and never published.” Why never published? Does that mean it was unfinished (either by her or by a musicologist)? Let hope Kurkowicz achieves her goal and locates this mysterious work and performs it for us, finished or unfinished.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich