BACEWICZ: Piano Quintets #1 & 2. Piano Sonata #2.
Krystian Zimerman (piano); Kaja Danczowska (1st violin); Agata Szymczewska (2nd violin); Ryszard Groblewski (viola); Rafal Kwiatkowski (cello).
DGG 477 8332 TT: 65:09.

Polish powerhouse. Grazyna Bacewicz ranks as one of Europe's great Modern and postwar composers. She also played violin well enough to come in second to Ginette Neveu in the 1935 Wieniawski Competition. As a pianist, she scored great success playing her own Piano Sonata #2. If you don't hate her already, you should know that she also wrote well-received novels and short stories.

A pupil of Nadia Boulanger during the Thirties, she early on wrote music touched by the French music of the day. Toward the end of the World War II, like most other advanced composers in Eastern Europe, she fell under Bartók's influence. During the Fifties and Sixties, as music from the West gained a toehold in Poland, she incorporated elements of the then-avant garde, without losing her firm grasp of form. Lutoslawski may have led, but she didn't lag far behind. She died of cancer, way too young, in 1969, just shy of her 60th birthday. Although she has impressive orchestral music (4 symphonies, 7 violin concerti, and so on), she seemed to put more of herself into chamber works.

Even at this late date, you find people exclaiming that a woman wrote such powerful music, as if they gaped at a freak. Fortunately, this attitude disappears as more and more woman produce fabulous stuff. The late, lamented Olympia label issued a Bacewicz series. Now, the mainstream labels are joining in, most likely because their star performers want to record her. This time it's Deutsche Grammophon and Krystian Zimerman. Zimerman has recorded, I believe, all these scores before for Olympia. With that label's demise, it's good to have them back and available.

The Piano Quintet #1 and the Piano Sonata #2 were written closely together. The quintet represents the height of Bacewicz's Bartók phase - a masterpiece of the last century. It uses several Bartókian gestures and inhabits the same emotional territory. The quintet's opening, for example, is right out of the Concerto for Orchestra and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. A slow rising, from deep within the ensemble, leading to a burst of energy. Nevertheless, there's something very individual hear, which comes out in the lyrical portions of the score, and a wit, including playing around with the B-A-C-H motif (B flat - A - C - B, in the key of C). This sets up expectations for a highly contrapuntal work, and Bacewicz doesn't disappoint, laying on one imitative passage after another. The second movement scherzo whirls and stamps - an oberek, a Polish quick triple-time dance. The slow third movement takes up a heartbreaking song. This differs from a typical Bartók slow movement, in that it's not an "objective" nocturne - no buzzing insects, no night birds - but closer to a straightforward singing, a Modern equivalent of Chopin, with long-breathing lines. The finale pushes short motives of great intensity, with lyrical breathers along the way, and ends with a maestoso version of the quintet's opening.

The Piano Sonata #2 follows a more obvious Romantic line. It opens with a flurry of ideas, mostly fiery in character, presented one after the other, without regard to transition. It moves associatively rather than logically. There's very little in the way of development, although a lyrical idea gets more play than most. An introverted, lovely slow movement unfolds like a daydream or someone singing to themselves, although a troubled breeze occasionally ripples a largely serene surface. The finale is a Bartókian take on folk dance, this time another oberek -- again, aggressive short motives flung at you, much like the finale of Bartók's own Piano Sonata 1926.

About a dozen years pass, and Bacewicz's music hasn't stood still. The Piano Quintet #2, from 1965, shows the composer engaging with the then-avant-garde. The music has become more dissonant, less tonally tethered (though still not atonal), and less dependent on dance and song phrases than on independent gestures. There seems to be, either before Lutoslawski or contemporary with him, a fondness for opposing free-rhythm passages with strict-rhythm ones. Bacewicz's drive, however, remains, especially in the opening movement. In the fast sections, you definitely feel a dance beat, and the relative langueurs definitely lead somewhere.

The slow movement uses sonority as its key means of expression, and Bacewicz invents many affecting textures to sing of regret. Again, there aren't the usual classical procedures here -- fewer than in the first movement -- but the piece nevertheless hangs together with a sure sense of drama. Bacewicz's contrapuntal mastery insures that the piece never turns into mud.
The finale is only relatively lighter -- a demonic divertimento. This is, for me, the most traditional movement architecturally, with dance elements more prominent. Flying creatures, bat chirps, crickets, swarms of things scurry through the night. Here, Bacewicz takes a Bartókian rhetorical point of view into new emotional territory. The dance ends suddenly, in mid-foot.

The performances are spectacular. Zimerman is, of course, a known excellence, but what particularly impresses me is the ensemble playing in the quintets. The players seem exquisitely alert to one another. In the second quintet's slow movement, for example, the quartet often enters at the last possible moment before the piano's sustained tones die completely and at about the same dynamic level. Combine that with some of the finest music of the last century and you likely get one of my recordings of the year.

S.G.S. (June 2011)