Silesian Quartet Brings to Life Grazyna Bacewicz’s Quintets & Quartets

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Grazyna Bacewicz: Quintets, quartets (Chandos)

How many times have I told you not to buy a record for its cover? Well, this one justifies the purchase. The image shows the central square of a small town in Poland in the 1960s, a place where nothing ever happens yet everything is closely watched. The image has been colourised for added artificiality. It is stifling, cloying, vividly reminiscent of the oppressive dullness of Communism.

The music is made to match. Bacewicz, who lived from 1909 to 1969, was a busy violinist who kept her head down and played well within the rules. What is going through her mind can only be guessed but some sonorities in the second piano quintet of 1965 are restlessly modern, reminiscent of Lutoslawski and, beyond, of forbidden Schoenberg.

The first quintet, dated 1952, hints at a repressed spirituality of a kind that would, year later, be associated with Henryk Mikolai Gorecki. And throughout Bacewicz maintains her own personality, with little outbursts of percussive piano rage and buzzy bees’ noises that suggest she is not entirely comfortable with her sheltered existence in the Polish workers’ paradise.

Her music is finally being sponsored on record by the national heritage authorities, but we need to experience its confrontational qualities live. The Silesian Quartet, with pianist Wojtech Switala, are good enough to grace the international stage.

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Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review.

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