Composer Grazyna Bacewicz

Immense energies

Grazyna Bacewicz: Piano concertos &c (Ondine)

Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Is there a more elusive composer in the whole of the 20th century than Grazyna Bacewicz (1909–1969)?

I’m not sure that any interpreter on record has yet nailed her character

Bacewicz is usually designated a Polish composer, but her Lithuanian father left the family after his state won independence in 1918. Her brother, Vytautus Bacevičius, was a composer in New York. Grazyna. Landing a well-paid job as concertmaster of the national radio orchestra, he shuttled between Warsaw and Lodz. She is Polish, then, by circumstance; also, by marriage and child. Her sound does not fit somehow in the Polish tapestry of Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, Panufnik and Penderecki. She is an outsider, not by reasons of gender. Bacewicz holds herself apart.

Under the horrors Nazi occupation, she carried on composing when there was no chance of getting performed. A ridiculously playful 1943 orchestra was premiered in September 1945. What on earth was in her mind — hope or mockery? Blindfolded, you might mistake this piece for a frippery by Arthur Bliss or one of Les Six. The real Grazyna Bacewicz will not stand up.

A first piano concerto of 1949, written under Stalinist rules of “socialist realism”, flickers between fragments of Bartok and Stravinsky, taking root in neither. Bacewicz keeps her intentions wilfully obscure. A concerto for two pianos in the slightly easier climate of 1966 betrays some affinity with contemporary modernism, but just as you think she’s waving tone clusters and a serial row, she retreats right back into tonal form and harmonies.

There are immense energies in Bacewicz, but I’m not sure that any interpreter on record has yet nailed her character. Peter Jablonski is the dazzling pianist on this release. Nicholas Collon conducts the Finnish radio orchestra with too many dynamic extremes. I keep wanting to like Bacewicz more, but I find it hard to understand that a composer who lived in Poland through its worst era would withhold the entirety of her experience from posterity. How is that possible?

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