Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Complete Symphonic Works Vol. 1
Symphony No. 3 (1952)
Symphony No. 4 (1953)
WDR Sinfonieorchester/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. November 2021, Studioproduktion Cologne, Cologne Philharmonie
cpo 555 556-2 
This is the first in a projected series of three volumes devoted to Grażyna Bacewicz’s symphonic music and adds to the plethora of her recordings now available. Though she stopped calling them symphonies, she continued to compose symphonic-scaled music after the Fourth, so this inaugural volume charts a precise period in time, 1952-53, which concludes her numbered symphonic cycle.
Bacewicz had to negotiate the need to produce music that conformed to prevailing political-musical diktat, which was inevitably couched in broadly socialist-realist form. This she accomplished largely through strategically useful folkloric elements in her scherzos but also in the context of bristling orchestration. The opening flourish in the Third Symphony is dramatic and uses big orchestral forces immediately establishing the contours of her writing. This is animated by strong blocks of sound but also clean, clear and formal elements. The brass leads in strong thematic writing, some of which is chorale-inflected, some of which seems to bear hallmarks derived from Bartók. Expressively, her lyricism tends toward the taut-and-tart school, inflected by percussion, but there’s jauntiness in the folkloric Scherzo. In a formally well-constructed work such as this, the finale integrates earlier material and develops other thematic writing. This includes a rather inscrutable March theme – jubilant or ironic, I can’t decide, Shostakovich-style – and a pungent percussion-led drive to the end. It’s a relatively compact work at 29 minutes, in four movements, and balances pungency with a flair for the lyric.
The Fourth Symphony is also in four movements but five minutes shorter. Again, the opening is imposing and sonorous with an orchestra even larger than for the Third Symphony. Themes are dramatic or skittish but culminate in a truly powerful and slashing end to the first movement. This is a symphony that generates expansive climaxes and almost surly moments of withdrawal, as the slow movement exemplifies. Harmonies are unsettled and in the Scherzo the writing is kinetic, with repeated changes of mood and orchestral colour at a fast tempo. Once again, here too, folk hints infiltrate the tapestry alongside ominous trumpet fanfares. The finale’s tight, remorseless drive is animated by tough rhythms that leads to another triumphant, chorale-seeming end. Remorseless as all this might seem, it carries its own vehement charge.
Bacewicz was later to turn increasingly to sonorism in her writing, but these two symphonies can be seen as her response to prevailing musical orthodoxy: how to produce a genuinely artistic statement in times of repression and criticisms of ‘formalism’. Soon to take up a professorship at the State University of Music at Łódź, where she’d been born, such negotiations in her music were necessary. It’s remarkable how much she achieved.
The symphonies employ the new PWM Edition (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne) and also follow the composer’s own metronome indications. The recordings have been finely made.
Łukasz Borowicz is a leading figure in the reclamation of Polish twentieth-century music and, as he has shown elsewhere on disc, is meticulous about editions and source material. He directs the WDR Sinfonieorchester with adamantine control but allows the more malleable elements of the music to relax. He makes the best possible case for these rigorous – but not only rigorous – symphonies.
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