A blazingly original major 20th-century composer, rediscovered

Detail of the album cover for Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete Orchestral Works vol 1 - CPO
Detail of the album cover for Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete Orchestral Works vol 1 - CPO

These days it can seem as if every week there’s a new recording of music by a neglected woman composer, who’s been rescued from oblivion by feistily feminist musical scholars or enthusiastic performers. Trying to judge the results is hard, and not just because the advocates for these composers always insist they are undiscovered geniuses. It takes time and practice to grasp the idiom of an unfamiliar composer (male or female), and time is what we’re always short of. If the much-hyped concerto or symphony seems patchy or obscure and inspired only in parts, I always wonder – is it me? Do I just need more time to get into this composer’s world?

With a new CD of the 3rd and 4th symphonies of Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), I never once had to ask that question. The blazing talent and originality is evident from the first bar, but more importantly those dazzling first impressions are sustained across the entire piece. Every movement has an irresistible onward sweep and a feeling of being exactly as long as it needs to be, and yet the energising conciseness of the music doesn’t come at the expense of open-handed generosity.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Grażyna Bacewicz was a virtuoso performer on the violin and piano, because her music has that ease and fluency of invention which performer-composers always have. She needed it, because she lived through a difficult period of Polish history, which was also confused in musical style. The neo-classicism of Stravinsky, the folk-influenced style of Bartók and the stirrings of post-war modernism were all plucking at her sleeve as she wrote, and a less confident and intuitively musical personality could have been derailed by these conflicting influences.

At times you can hear them rising to the surface; for instance the 4th symphony, written in 1953, has some extraordinary sonic inventions, such as glistening high string sounds in the 1st movement, which sound like a foreshadowing of the modernist music Bacewicz would write a decade later. Beneath those sounds is a conventionally pathetic oboe melody, but so exact is Bacewicz’s ear that rather than seeming like oil and water these two things cohere into a unity, with a particular expressive colour which is hers alone. On this superb new recording the WDR symphony orchestra and conductor Łukasz Borowicz give the music just the combination of aural finesse and impetuous expressivity it needs. Bacewicz is clearly a major figure of mid 20th-century music, obscured for too long by gender and Cold War politics. This new recording is a hopeful sign that her moment has finally arrived.

Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete Orchestral Works vol. 1, performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz, is released by CPO