The last few years have been good to the music of Grażyna Bacewicz. Championed by musicians from her native Poland and elsewhere, including Krystian Zimerman, this pioneering composer seems to be beginning to win the international profile she deserves, at least on disc. Recently there have been distinctive but equally rewarding surveys of her seven string quartets on both Chandos and Naxos. Now, on Chandos, the Silesian Quartet is joined by pianist Wojciech Świtała and others for her two piano quintets, plus two less conventional quartets – for four violins and four cellos.
Born in Lodz in 1909, Bacewicz was both a composer and a renowned violin virtuoso, and a more than decent pianist as well. She wrote for strings and piano as a singer might write for their own voice: as someone who knows the instruments’ capabilities inside out, knows how to harness their particular resonances and make each instrument speak naturally and eloquently.
This is especially apparent in the 1952 Quintet No 1, in which her music sounds equally idiomatic and at ease with itself in the itchy folk dance of the second movement as it does in the intense, mournful slow movement that follows it, and in the crunchy, ringing harmony of the 1949 Quartet for Four Violins. But you can hear it, too, in the 1965 Quintet No 2 and the 1963 Quartet for Four Cellos, both written after a car accident had ended Bacewicz’s performing career. These are more modernist in outlook, more experimental, sometimes to monumental effect. The Quintet No 2 ends with another folk dance – so often the stumped composer’s cop-out happy ending of choice – but the effect here isn’t twee or toothless, and the energised playing from all the musicians involved is consistently polished and engaging.