Grażyna Bacewicz was admired by Witold Lutosławski as ‘a distinguished Polish composer of the 20th century and one of the foremost women composers of all time’. She began composing when she was 13, and went on to study with Kazimierz Sikorski, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. In 1932, she headed to Paris to learn from the great pedagogue herself, as well as continuing her violin studies. Bacewicz saw her music falling into three periods: ‘I – youthful, very experimental; II – wrongly referred to here as neo-classical, though, in fact, it’s atonal’; and ‘period III… absolutely avant-garde in nature.’ Her output includes four symphonies, seven string quartets, seven violin concertos and two piano quintets.
Concerto for String Orchestra (1948)
Whatever the composer’s protestations, the neo-classical label seems apt here. The Concerto for String Orchestra, which draws on the Baroque concerto grosso, is often cited as Bacewicz’s most performed orchestral piece. It certainly deserves to be often heard. Each movement is a gem. First, a vigorous Allegro, bristling with energy. Next, an Andante in which poignant solos lead into ecstatic writing for the whole ensemble, before the music subsides towards a wistful close. And to end, a dancing Vivo.
Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1959)
The title suggests a homage to Bartók – his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, specifically – but this 1959 avant-garde concerto grosso is Bacewicz through and through. Cast in three movements, and scored for five trumpets, celesta, xylophone, side-drum, timpani and strings, the work pits its instrumental groups against one another. It’s fierce, unsettling and inventive.
String Quartet No. 4 (1950)
The seven string quartets by Bacewicz are an important, if still underperformed, part of 20th-century string repertoire. The Fourth Quartet won first prize at the International Contest for Composers in Liège in 1951. Falling into her neo-classical period, a label Bacewicz herself disliked, this quartet draws on Polish folk music and explores the expressive possibilities of the genre. ‘It is Beethoven that comes to mind, this time from his last quartets,’ wrote one journalist after hearing the piece in Belgium.
Piano Quintet No. 1 (1952)
Bacewicz wrote two piano quintets, both of which are works of impressive stature and imagination. The First is flavoured with Polish folk music, and blends expressive intensity with sparky writing. It’s her best-known chamber piece, and there are several execellent recordings of it, including a recent recording by the Silesian Quartet and pianist Wojciech Świtała, on Chandos, given five stars by BBC Music Magazine.
Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965)
Bacewicz’s series of violin concertos culminates with the Seventh in her avant-garde period in the 1960s. Although she had premiered many of her other concertos herself, by this point a serious car accident had put an end to her performing career. The three-movement work was first performed by its dedicatee, the Spanish violinist Augustín León Ara. It’s a searching, taut piece, with a moody night music section at its heart.
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953)
The violin might have been Bacewicz’s preferred instrument, but she was no slouch at the piano either. She premiered her Second Sonata, later described as ‘a real display piece’ when the world-renowned pianist Krystian Zimerman championed it on disc. The three-movement work comprises a volcanic Maestoso, a sombre Largo and – as so often with Bacewciz, a fleet-footed finale, in this case a Toccata.