This past July this site reported on Naxos’ release of the first volume of the complete string quartets by the twentieth-century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. The second volume was released at the end of last week, meaning that there is now an opportunity to listen to all seven of her quartets performed by the same ensemble, the Lutosławski Quartet, consisting of violinists Jakub Jakowicz and Marcin Markowicz, violist Artur Rozmysłowicz, and cellist Maciej Młodawski. The first volume took an interesting approach to ordering its content, sandwiching two of the early quartets, the first and the third, between the last two, the later pieces being composed in 1960 and 1965, respectively. The second volume takes a similar approach, placing the second quartet between the fourth and fifth.
However, the contrast across the quartets in the second volume is less pronounced than that in the first. That is because five years separate the fifth quartet in the second volume from the sixth in the first volume. As was previously observed, Bacewicz’ thoughts about making music seem to have gone through a major transition over the course of those five years; and the last two quartets indicate a shift in rhetoric based on harmonic progression to one based on exploring a broader spectrum of sonorities, perhaps even to the extent of using timbre as a “harmonic principle,” a phrase used by Amiri Baraka (writing at the time as LeRoi Jones) when describing the avant-garde efforts of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. However, it is unlikely that Bacewicz was exposed to the avant-garde side of American jazz (or, probably, any side of American jazz); and her interest in sonority might have resulted from her exposure to Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”
From a chronological point of view, the fourth and fifth quartets may have simply followed up on the third quartet, the first of the string quartets Bacewicz composed after the end of the Second World War. Poland may have ended up behind the Iron Curtain, but the defeat of the Nazis was good for her. In the “normalcy” that ensued, she achieved a faculty position (presumably tenured) at the State Conservatory of Music in Łódź (now the Academy of Music in Łódź); and there are upbeat qualities to both the fourth and fifth quartets. More interesting, however, may be the second quartet, the only one of the seven written during the Second World War (completed in 1943). While composers like Dmitri Shostakovich were using their music to document the emotional toll of living from day to day in a time of war, Bacewicz’ second quartet has some of her most lyrical writing, almost as if she had resorted to nostalgia for the past as a means of enduring the present.
The result is that those interested in Bacewicz’ progress as a string quartet composer will really need to consider both volumes of this Naxos collection, since each volume, taken on its own, presents only portion of her story.