Friday, 24 May 2019

Polish connections: Grazyna Bacewicz, Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki from Southbank Sinfonia

SOuthbank Sinfonia
Southbank Sinfonia
Britten, Lutoslawski, Bacewicz, Gorecki, Grieg; Southbank Sinfonia; Kings Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The music of Grazyna Bacewicz at the centre of a thoughtful and engaging programme from the young players of Southbank Sinfonia

The Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz was a major name during her life-time and a significant influence on her Polish contempories such as Witold Lutowlawski and Henryk Gorecki, yet compared to her British contemporary Benjamin Britten (they were almost exact contemporaries) her music today is relatively neglected.

Southbank Sinfonia, directed from the violin by Eugene Lee, brought a programme of music by Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutoslawksi, Grazyna Bacewicz, Henryk Goreck and Edvard Grieg to Kings Place on 23 May 2019. The centrepiece was a pair of Bacewicz's major works for strings, Concerto for String Orchestra and Divertimento for String Orchestra, alongside works by two of her Polish contemporaries whom she influenced, Lutoslawski's Music Funebre and Hneryk Gorecki's Three Pieces in Old Style. The element of old forms made new was also explored in Britten's Simple Symphony and Grieg's Holberg Suite.


Britten's Simple Symphony was written when he was 20 and creates four movements based on early English dances but with material from his own history, pieces he wrote in his youth. It is a deceptive work, tricky yet very appealing. 'Boisterous Bouree' was highly articulated and characterful but a tad too serious, whilst the engaging 'Playful Pizzicato' had quite a strong sound, though lacked a playful element perhaps. 'Sentimental Sarabande' was intense, sober and grave, with a vivid 'Frolicsome Finale' to finish.

Lutoslawski's Musique funebre was written in 1958 during a period when Lutoslawksi's music was undergoing radical change as he found his own voice after struggling with the requirements of the Communist regime. It is an intense and closely wrought work, all based on a single tone-row. We heard the first movement, 'Prologue' where the tone-row is only ever heard in canon, initially on two cellos and then gradually instruments are added to create a dark, intense and very striking movement. It was a terrific piece in a terrific performance, and I wished that we could have heard the rest of the work.

Like Lutoslwaski, Grazyna Bacewicz (who was four years his senior) had to negotiate the complexities of life in post-War Poland. Her Concerto for String Orchestra was written in 1948. It is a highly neo-classical work, but one which is full of her own voice and her rather distinctive harmonies, Lutoslawski described them as 'ascerbic'. The opening 'Allegro' was bristling with energy and full of striking textures, whilst the 'Andante' started with lightly transparent upper strings over an expressive cello solo it developed into something rich and strange, strong and intense. The 'Vivo' finale was again energetic and vibrant, with the performers bringing an engaging energy to the music. Despite its title, this was definitely not a light piece.

And neither was Bacewicz's 1965 Divertimento for String Orchestra in which she concentrated on the tritone! The opening 'Allegro' was full of energy but the preponderance of tritones made it dark and intense with some very striking string writing. The 'Adagio' was quiet and spare, somewhat evoking Bartok's night music. The 'Giocoso' finale was rendered distinctive by the tritone glissandi which were a major feature of the movement!

Gorecki's Three Pieces in Old Style were written in 1963, exploring themes and styles of early Polish music but not slavishly pastiche. The first was gentle with a rocking figure which grew in intensity and volume, the second full of vigorous energy and harmonies. Only in the third, with its strikingly luminous textures, did we encounter the Gorecki with whom we are most familiar.

Grieg's Holberg Suite was written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg by evoking the music of his time. Again, not in a slavish manner and the success of the suite lies in the modern composer's engagement with the past. 'Praeludium' was crisply energetic and engagingly vibrant, whilst 'Sarabande' was graceful and full of warm tones, with a lovely rich cello solo. 'Gavotte' was full of lively rhythms whilst 'Air' was sonorous and intense. All rounded off with a light and perky 'Rigaudon'.

The concert was part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, showcasing women composers and it was perhaps fitting that the string second of the current cohort of the Southbank Sinfonia was comprised of a majority of women with just four men in the orchestra.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Clive Osgood: Sacred Choral Music (★★★½)  - CD review
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  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
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  • A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - CD review
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