Wednesday 17 May 2023

Grażyna Bacewicz's piano concertos and more on an exciting disc from Peter Jablonski & the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Grażyna Bacewicz: Piano Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos, Musi for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion; Peter Jablonski, Elisabeth Brauss, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon; ONDINE
Grażyna Bacewicz: Piano Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos, Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion; Peter Jablonski, Elisabeth Brauss, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon; ONDINE

Three of the Polish composer's major symphonic works, including both piano concertos, in new recordings that bring out the power, range and brilliance of her music.

Grażyna Bacewicz wrote four symphonies and a Concerto for Symphony Orchestra, seven violin concertos, a viola concerto, two cello concertos, a piano concerto and a concerto for two pianos, along with five violin sonatas, seven string quartets, two piano quintets and much else besides. Yet, despite her music gaining currency in Western Europe, we rarely hear much of it. Before the war, she combined a career as a violinist (including playing with the Polish Radio Orchestra) with that of a composer but after the war, she concentrated on her compositional career. That she remained in her native Poland, behind the Iron Curtain, perhaps explains why her music never really percolated the West during her lifetime and rather disappeared afterwards.

The pianist Peter Jablonski, having given us a disc of Bacewicz's piano works on Ondine, returns to Ondine with pianist Elisabeth Brauss, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon for a programme which features Bacewicz's Piano Concerto (with Jablonski as soloist), her Concerto for Two Pianos, Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion and OvertureThe music spans 23 years of her composing career, and it is fascinating to hear how her sound and her style developed.

We begin with the Overture, written in 1943 during the German occupation of Poland, with the premiere taking place in 1945 at the Contemporary Polish Music Festival in Krakow. It begins with busy excitement and a distinctly neo-Classical flavour. There are slower, more contemplative moments, but excitement is vividly to the fore. 

Her Piano Concerto was written in 1949 for the Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition organised by the Polish Composers' Union to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's death. In the event, the judges did not award a first prize, and Bacewicz received the second; the premiere was in November 1949 in Warsaw, conducted by Andrzej Panufnik. Things are less neo-Classical in the concerto, but we are still in the same sound world. The opening pits the piano against a strong orchestral figure, and though Bacewicz allows the soloist gentler moments, this sense of a drama between soloist and orchestra is paramount. The quieter moments have touches of Bartok's night music about them, perhaps equally disturbing as the dramatic sections. The piano part is substantial and strenuous, finely played by Jablonski. The slow movement begins in a dark, eerie world though the piano is more melodic and intimate. The melodic material comes from a Polish folk-song, though evidently we only ever get fragments and there is the sense that the orchestra does not allow the soloist to relax for long. The opening of the finale is in some ways a hint of Ravel's La Valse, as the momentum of the rhythm starts, builds up and then sets off, with a vivid, busy movement, the piano sometimes simply primus inter pares rather than spotlit. This is a brilliant conclusion to fine and complex work. Jablonski gives an account of the solo part that is deftly heroic, almost hiding the difficulties and he is finely supported by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Collon.

Her Concerto for Two Pianos takes us to 1966, and the premiere took place in 1968, again in Warsaw. We are now in a different sound world, more complex, edgier and with merely an echo of neo-Classicism. The first movement begins with barely an orchestral gesture before the pianos enter. This is, in many ways, disturbing music, edgy and fragmented with a harder feel to the harmony, yet full of vivid colours. There are moments in the first movement that are positively angry, but this never lasts long. There is not much in the way of thematic material, it is all harmony, rhythm and colour, assembled to devastating effect. The slow movement sees us in a modern version of Bartok's night music, eerie, disturbing, yet full of colour and movement.  Whereas the first movement uses the full power of two pianists at two pianos, the writing here is more impressionistic and atmospheric, delicate even. The finale begins with another orchestral gesture, but the pianos' response is distinctly skittish. This dichotomy continues and it develops into a complex movement that hardly feels like the usual showy concerto finale. There is a darkness to this concerto that is intriguing, and it is tempting (but probably erroneous) to relate this to what was going on in Poland and other Iron Curtain countries at the time. 

The Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion was composed in 1958 and premiered at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1959. The work pays a direct homage to Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The first movement is all excitement and drama, the opening contrasting busy strings with held trumpets and a timpani roll to great effect, but there is disturbance too and Bartok-like energy and anxiety. His Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta does not feel far away, yet some of Bacewicz's writing could be almost filmic in the vividness of the depiction of the drama. The slow movement opens quiet and profoundly intense, disturbed almost. It builds into dramatic moments, but that undertow of steady, eerie quiet persists. A night just as disturbing as one of Bartok's. We end with a brilliant finale where Bacewicz's neo-Classicism sounds Hindemith-like at times. 

Grażyna Bacewicz: Concerto for two pianos - recording session with Peter Jablonski, Elisabeth Brauss, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (Photo: Maarit Kytöharju)
Grażyna Bacewicz: Concerto for two pianos - recording session with Peter Jablonski, Elisabeth Brauss, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (Photo: Maarit Kytöharju)

This is a fine and important disc. We can never appreciate Bacewicz's music without experiencing the full range of her works. By giving us the piano concertos and two other significant orchestra works, the disc enables us to appreciate her power and range. But more than that, the music receives superb performances, and clearly, Jablonski, Collon and the orchestra appreciate the sheer drama, bravura and brilliance of her music.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) - Overture(1943) [5:42]
Grażyna Bacewicz - Piano Concerto (1949) [20:47]
Grażyna Bacewicz - Concerto for Two Pianos (1966) [16:38]
Grażyna Bacewicz - Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958) [19:24]
Peter Jablonski (piano)
Elisabeth Brauss (piano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)
Recorded at Helsinki Music Centre, Finland, April & December 2022
ONDINE ODE 1427-2 1CD [63.13]

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