BACEWICZ String Quartets
This is a good time to be rediscovering post-war string quartets. The Heath Quartet’s recent Wigmore Hall Tippett set (3/16) has prompted an overdue reassessment of a remarkable body of work; now, hot on the heels of the Lutosawski Quartet’s survey on Naxos, we have another new complete Grażyna Bacewicz quartet cycle from the Katowice-based Silesian String Quartet. And if you’ve ever felt that Tippett’s quartets form a sort of alternative biography of their composer, the same is doubly true for Bacewicz. These seven works, composed between 1938 and 1965, add up to a compelling portrait of a powerfully original creative spirit.
Those were turbulent years in Poland. Adrian Thomas’s booklet-notes outline the story, and one of the most distinctive and appealing aspects of Bacewicz’s art is the way her quartets seem to have served her as – well, not an escape, exactly, although it’s extraordinary how one of the lightest and most outwardly carefree of the quartets, the Second, dates from 1943. And how little attention, too, she pays to the demands of Soviet artistic dogma in the post-war period. The quartets are more like an affirmation of art as art: of music’s autonomy to speak in its own voice and no other, in an evolving language that combines intense emotion, boundless imagination and thrilling formal mastery.
That’s one particular benefit of this set. Unlike Naxos, and an earlier cycle from the Amar Corde Quartet on the Polish label Acte Préalable, Chandos presents the quartets in chronological order, and there’s no better path into Bacewicz’s sound world. Take that path, and it’s difficult not to be convinced that these works constitute an achievement worthy to stand alongside the quartet cycles of Tippett, Britten, Shostakovich and Bartók. The first two quartets are buoyantly neo-classical (the First actually quotes a Lithuanian folksong), vibrant with Bacewicz’s playful rhythmic sense and a violinist’s instinct for string sonority. There are sudden sweeps, dancing finales and moments of glacial stillness.
By the Second Quartet, Bacewicz’s fingerprints (sighing glissandos, haunted rocking motifs in the middle distance of a slow movement) are already emerging. By the propulsive, exuberant Third and Fourth we’re dealing with mastery. Modernist colours – percussive pizzicato, metallic shivers – fill a taut classical form in the Fifth; and in the opening slides and sighs of the Sixth Quartet (1960 – Bacewicz’s first venture into the twelve-note system) her voice (like Stravinsky’s) is so distinctive that you don’t hear tone rows: you hear Bacewicz. The Seventh Quartet (1965) unites fantastic, mercurial contrasts of mood in a form so cogent that the closest parallel I can think of is Haydn – and you can’t give higher praise than that.
In short, Bacewicz’s quartets are essential listening, and the Silesian Quartet really give the impression of having lived with them. They approach the cycle as a unity – as early as the First Quartet, they’re colouring accompaniment figures to anticipate the sul ponticello buzzings of the later works – and everything grows out of a deep sense of Bacewicz’s structures: listen to the sheer momentum they generate in the opening bars of the First, Third and Fifth Quartets. There’s an objectivity and a sense of musical intelligence here that (I feel) serves the music better than the more red-in-tooth-and-claw Lutosawskis (Naxos’s sound, too, is on the boomy side). Chandos captures the Silesian Quartet in a lucid, atmospheric recorded sound that’s gutsy without being hectoring.
Not that there’s anything cold-blooded about their playing; their range spans from melting tenderness in the first movement of the Fourth (the most openly romantic) to the fire-and-ice concentration of the third movement of the Fifth – one of several Bacewicz slow movements that seem to thaw slowly from within. The viola is often the bearer of Bacewicz’s most intimate confessions, and the Silesian Quartet’s viola player ukasz Syrnicki is capable both of flute-like softness and ardent declamation. But the whole group seem to understand this life-affirming music from the inside. Even their comic timing is spot on – vital in Bacewicz’s witty, high-voltage finales.
With at least three recorded cycles, Bacewicz’s quartets haven’t been as badly served as some and it’s wonderful to have the choice of two very different recent recordings. Nonetheless, the assurance, insight and finish of this particular set make it feel like a landmark – an assertion of this music’s place at the heart of the 20th-century quartet repertoire, where it surely belongs. The Silesian Quartet play it like it’s Beethoven. There’s no point-making, just a shared commitment to letting Bacewicz speak. And that’s something profoundly worth hearing.