Notes and Editorial Reviews
A good place to start is with Bacewicz’s Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano (1949). Though a student of the influential Nadia Boulanger, this isn’t a slender, elegant work in streamlined neo-Classical style. It’s a serious four-movement composition that lasts slightly more than 21 minutes, as recorded here. The combination of distinctive, emotionally assertive folk-like material, dynamic rhythms, and bitonal, sometimes-astringent harmonies recalls both Szymanowski and Bartók. Only in the airy, two-part counterpoint of the scherzo does the composer resort to a form of light but typically well-structured entertainment. The Sonata No. 5 (1951) for the same instruments is a grimmer work in a similar vein, alternately ethereal (the
romantic second theme of the first movement, the first theme of the second) and brutal in its violence (the first movement’s first theme, most of the last movement).
The Sonata No. 2 for Violin Solo (1958) was premiered by the composer herself. Despite the occasional use of microtones and seconds in double-stops this is a tonally rigorous, harmonically advanced work. Bartók is still more to the fore, especially in the spectral slow movement. The presto finale seems to nod obliquely towards the allegro molto that concludes the Hungarian master’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.
The Partita (1955) was written while the composer was recuperating from a serious car accident. Bacewicz prepared two versions: an orchestral one that I’ve never heard, and the version for violin and piano that’s performed here. In four movements (with the old Church sonata structure: slow-fast-slow-fast), the predominating influence would appear once again to be Bartók. Short folk motifs with simple, repetitive melodic and rhythmic cells are treated in a tonally free fashion. The first movement is a heavy-footed, uneasy Praeludium; it’s followed by a motoric Toccata. A phantasmal Intermezzo leads to a vibrant Rondo, whose brief, rhapsodic second theme could have been written by Kodály.
Scattered between these larger works are several whose smaller scale in no way implies a lack of technical challenge. Quite the opposite: the Capriccio (1946) is a short neo-Classical equivalent of the fireworks finales that ended many turn-of-the-20th-century French/Belgian violin concertos, while the Polish Capriccio (1949) is a two movement work for solo violin that begins with a slow, unabashedly romantic meditation and concludes in an abstract whirlwind of a folk dance. Finally, there’s the Oberek No. 1 (1949), a short bout of furious fiddling whose lack of musical complexity conceals Bacewicz’s clever transformation of short folk motifs. One can easily imagine the composer-violinist finishing a concert with any of these encores, and leaving the stage to a standing ovation.
Though the piano-writing is not without interest in any of these compositions, both the formal lead and bulk of melodic content goes to the violin. It is thorny stuff; not so much the listening (which is relatively tame by mid-20th century avant-garde standards) as the performance. All these pieces furnish a reminder of Bacewicz’s world-class status as a violinist, who might have made an international career of it if she hadn’t preferred a mix of composing, jurying, teaching, and concertizing. With a single exception (some of the figurations in the allegro section of the Fifth Sonata’s opening movement), Joanna Kurkowicz performs each work with conspicuous ease. However, I miss a spectrum of color to match the breadth of technique that the violinist displays. Ever so precise, she ignores the emotional intensity so characteristic of Bacewicz. In that respect, Arnold Belnick (with pianist Sergei Silvansky) is better in both the Partita and the sonatas on Cambria CMB 1052. (In place of the Solo Violin Sonata, they offer the Third Violin Sonata.) He frequently employs a more marcato attack, and puts greater pressure on the bow. His technique is not quite as good on his recording as Kurkowicz’s, for whatever reason, nor does the distant, hollow miking do wonders for his sound. By contrast, the sound on this new Chandos release is well forward and attractive, and a good essay is supplied by Judith Rosen.
Barry Brenesal, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Partita for Violin and Piano by Grazyna Bacewicz
Gloria Chien (Piano),
Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1955; Poland
Polish Caprice by Grazyna Bacewicz
Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
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