Despite the popularity of downloads and DVDs, the CD format continues to see a mass of new releases. In this, it’s rather like live theater — less popular in terms of numbers than its electronic challengers, but catering instead to a variety of small interest groups. In the same way the stage play has become the province of metropolitan intellectuals, so the CD has become the medium for enthusiasts of nonmainstream music.
But when I started listening to the six violin concertos by the female Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909 to 1969), I was so overwhelmed that I wasn’t at all sure the appellation “nonmainstream” was applicable. A violinist herself, Bacewicz wrote seven concertos for the instrument of which one, No. 6, has been lost or is for some other reason unavailable for performance. Chandos has issued the remaining six on two CDs, the second of which appeared in June. All are first-time recordings.
There’s a huge paradox here. Bacewicz is widely known in her native Poland, and in fact the country issued a stamp in 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. And yet these violin concertos, uniformly magnificent, are here being recorded only for the first time.
The style is simultaneously sensuous and dynamic, a sort of Slavish version of Erich Korngold, but far more inventive, adventurous and thrilling. Immediately you listen to them you feel that you want to hear them over and over again. I’d go further. Mozart has six violin concertos extant, and if I had to take either his six or Bacewicz’s six onto a desert island, I’d opt for Bacewicz’s without a moment’s hesitation — yet I’m nothing if not a Mozart enthusiast.
They’re played here by Joanna Kurkowicz and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under their charismatic young conductor Lukasz Borowicz. Kurkowicz’s sweeping style, strong on emphasis and exceptionally self-confident, gives these concertos exactly what they need. Indeed, this pair of recordings is likely to catapult Bacewicz into a new and belated international celebrity.
It may be, anyway, that hers is a music whose time has finally come. Chandos is not the only setup to be taking notice of her. Deutsche Grammophon last year came up with a recording of Bacewicz’s two piano quintets, with none other than Krystian Zimerman at the keyboard [DG 4778332]. If Zimerman is taking an interest in this composer, then it’s more than likely that a number of others in the performance community will soon be doing the same.
It isn’t often that you witness a new voice being launched onto the international market, but this appears to be what’s happening. Be that as it may, these two CDs are worth their weight in gold. The performances by Kurkowicz and by the orchestra are sensational, and the recording quality is at the very peak of its class.
“My sincere hope is that generations of violinists, teachers and critics will be attracted to Grazyna Bacewicz’s oeuvre,” writes Kurkowicz, “especially the violin concertos, and that the quality and originality of Bacewicz’s works will secure them the acclaim they so richly deserve, and their rightful place among the masterpieces of the repertoire.”
Another rendition of a relatively modern violin concerto, that by Philip Glass, is far less engaging, however. It’s in a version for soprano saxophone rather than violin, with Amy Dickson the saxophonist and Mikel Toms conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.