Polish-born 20th-century composers Grażyna Bacewicz and Mieczysław Weinberg have not been part of the so-called “musical canon”, but in recent decades, due to many advocates, researchers and performers, we have been fortunate to witness a revival in their music. Weinberg’s name came to prominence with productions of his memorable holocaust opera The Passenger, which has been performed all over Europe including at English National Opera, and this year his centenary is being celebrated at the Proms. As for Bacewicz, I remember being struck by the distinctiveness of her music on BBC Radio 3 a few year ago, and it was a great pleasure to have that impression confirmed in this Proms lunchtime concert at Cadogan Hall.

Silesian Quartet © Magdalena Jodłowska
Silesian Quartet
© Magdalena Jodłowska

The Silesian String Quartet from Poland, long-time advocates of their compatriot composers, gave compelling performances of Weinberg’s String Quartet no. 7 and Bacewicz’s First Piano Quintet (joined by the pianist Wojciech Świtała), making an eloquent case for both works which were composed in the 1950s.

Weinberg’s music is often linked to Shostakovich. After Weinberg fled Poland in 1939 and emigrated to the Soviet Union, eventually settling in Moscow in 1943, they became close friends. All his life he was influenced greatly by the elder composer, and he said that “although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works”. As with Shostakovich, the medium of the string quartet was hugely important for Weinberg (he wrote 17 string quartets), which probably contained his most inner and personal thoughts in the time of political oppression. The Seventh was composed in 1957 and the eminent Borodin Quartet gave its premiere.

Of this three-movement work, the influence of Shostakovich is most evident in the rhythmic Allegretto second movement, but Weinberg’s unique voice comes through more in the slower movements that frame the work. He is above all a supreme lyricist, and in the largely homophonic Adagio first movement, Szymon Krzeszowiec, the first violinist, phrased the haunting main melody with sensitivity. The final movement is a set of variations that elaborates on the initial violin theme, and an interesting characteristic of his string writing is that sometimes the second violin would embellish above the first violin melody – rather like the left hand of the piano playing over the right hand. The players paced the work with conviction and they maintained the emotional intensity throughout – the work rather surprisingly ending with a blazing C major chord.

Yet it was Bacewicz’s music which really impressed me in this concert with her distinct musical language. Born in 1909, she studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and had a career in Poland as a violinist, later devoting herself to composition. As I listened to her piano quintet (1952), I kept thinking which composer she reminded me of, but there wasn’t any single influence which I could point a finger at. Yes, probably traces of Szymanowski and Bartók, but I felt she had an original voice. It seems she was highly regarded in her time in Poland, but because of the Iron Curtain, she wasn’t known in the West.

Refreshingly, Bacewicz doesn’t model her quintet on the piano versus string quartet form so the piano part is never dominant; it’s quite quixotic and intricate, and comes in and out of the quartet texture with dexterity. It needs a pianist who knows the work inside out and Wojciech Świtała was certainly such a pianist, totally familiar with the work and her language, and playing with a light and articulate touch. The lively first movement, framed by a slow introduction, has some soloistic moments for the piano, but the catchy Scherzo, in the style of the oberek (a fast Polish dance in triple time), is formed of a spirited dialogue between the piano and the strings, as well as a meditative viola solo. The dark third movement, build upon the hypnotic repetitive figures on the piano, is followed by a buoyant finale. It was a great pleasure to hear this work performed so eloquently and convincingly by her compatriot musicians. More Bacewicz at future Proms please.

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