It’s always really exciting to receive a CD featuring a composer I’ve never encountered before. There’s also a sense of guilt that I’m not as knowledgeable as I’d like to be about classical music, especially in the 20th century – how can a composer whose 7 string quartets are collected together in these two discs be completely unknown to me? There are a few obvious answers to that apart from my ignorance. The sad fact of the matter is that the ‘canon’ of classical composers generally excludes minorities and women. Strides have been made in this area, but events like Radio 3 using International Women’s Day to celebrate 24 hours of inspiring women in music are still unfortunately necessary.
Not to dwell on the politics and history of it, we’re here to listen to the CD though! Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was not just a composer, but also a pianist and professional violinist. She premiered her own 1st Violin Concerto (1938), stemming from the same year as the 1st Quartet, as well as many other works. The Silesian Quartet progress steadily through Grażyna Bacewicz’s oeuvre of quartets in chronological order. Ranging from 1938 to 1965 the 7 quartets are an interesting mirror to developments both internationally and in the musical world.
Bacewicz didn’t want the first two quartets (1938 and 1943) published, but they are quite rightly included here. Their playful spirit makes them instantly likeable, and in contrast to the later quartets they are more diatonic, remaining more within the traditional Western harmonies of the Classical era. That’s not to say they aren’t unique. From the start of the 1st Quartet the parts wind around each other in what it soon becomes obvious is a trademark of Bacewicz’s style. Each instrument is equally valued – there is none of the tradition of cello maintaining the key with steady but boring plodding, or of first violin triumphing over everyone else. The 2nd Quartet, written during the Second World War whilst Bacewicz was in Warsaw with her husband and baby daughter, has at its core one of the highlights for me of the CD, a melancholy, central Andante with hints of later Shostakovich, although with a much lighter touch and more movement in the parts. This leads onto a lively and playful Allegro, but still the sense of a sadness under the surface pervades.
The second disc opens with the 5th Quartet, which the sleeve notes describe as “arguably the most ambitious and accomplished of the set”. It is the longest of the 7 quartets at 25 minutes and encompasses a great range of techniques and textures for the players to achieve. I enjoyed this quartet, but the intensity of it left me slightly unengaged – more appealing were the earlier works, or the tragic beauty of the 4th Quartet. Bacewicz won several prizes for her quartets, not least first prize with her 4th Quartet at the First International Competition for Composers of a String Quartet at Liege in September 1951.
I’m still left with so much to explore in greater depth on these two CDs, but I already know that they will become a staple in my library because of their ability to immediately engage a listener and the simple beauty of the melodic lines and characteristic twisting of the four stringed instruments together. The Silesian Quartet present them all with an open sound, not overly dramatic, and very well timed and placed in terms of the changes of tempi; there really is nothing to criticise! It is a real pleasure to find a quartet performing works in such a way so as to bring them to new audiences, rather than yearning for ‘that’ standout interpretation of a classic. They received support for this recording from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and I will definitely keep a look out for their Polska Music programme in the future, as this has proven such a hidden gem.
A few years back I started doing something I never thought I could - writing about classical music. Encouraged by the lovely team at NE:MM I've spent the time since revelling in live performances at the Sage, as well as Corbridge and Durham, and extolling the wonderful virtues of CDs I could not afford to buy. Through NE:MM I've even been introduced to opera, my once hated nemesis!
In the rest of my not-so-spare time, I play the violin locally in the New Tyneside Orchestra and Orchestra North East.
The best bit about all of this? Reading what all the other contributors write about their specialist genre. I learn so much!
Latest posts by Katie Lodge (see all)
- Samling Academy – Sage Gateshead – 23-10-16 - October 30, 2016
- Mendelssohn: Symphony No.1, Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’ – Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the LSO - August 19, 2016
- Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets – Silesian Quartet - July 21, 2016