In two earlier blog entries, I grumbled “Enough is enough!” with the Grazyna Bacewicz revival - suggesting record labels were taking it too far, merely jumping on the bandwagon of her recent name popularity. I felt (and still do) that they were giving us too much of her lesser work, particularly when they began digging up some of her discarded, unpublished stuff which didn’t represent her at her finest.
While I wasn’t exactly wrong about that, I now realize there is much more to explore. My criticisms were mostly of her chamber music (and piano concertos), which can get pretty wayward and determinedly atonal to the point of deliberate unpleasantness. But this new recording of her symphonic works shows her artistry in a completely different (and more distinguished) light.
I was familiar with Bacewicz’s lighter orchestral music, mostly for string orchestra, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (There are several discs of it on the DUX label and a notable collection on Hyperion.) And I thought her 7 Violin Concertos (on Chandos) were absolutely sensational. So I shouldn’t be at all surprised that I love these two symphonies so much.
What does surprise me, though, is how much they sound like Arnold Bax. As a matter of fact, in a game of “name that composer”, I would instantly, unhesitatingly and repeatedly name Arnold Bax as the composer of these symphonies. The booklet writer insists this music is reminiscent of Bartok above all else (and sometimes Szymanowski), but I don’t hear it. Rather, I am consistently reminded of Bax’s grand, colorful, resplendent orchestral tone poems (and even of a couple of his more approachable symphonies, e.g. #2 & 5). There is that same distinctive orchestration (thick chordal richness in the woodwinds, for example) and expansive harmonic landscape, with boundless chromatic freedom so characteristic of Bax. There’s also a similar thematic development style, where the kernel of a tune appears but doesn’t quite develop into one, but instead takes off in unexpected directions, soaring into the heavens.
I cannot adequately describe this music in greater detail without first extolling the mastery of conductor Sakari Oramo and the superb playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They are simply magnificent in this music. And so too is Chandos recording engineer Ralph Couzens. If I thought Chandos had attained the ultimate achievement in recorded sound for John Wilson's Rachmaninoff Third and Kenneth Fuchs collection, they take it to new exalted heights with this one.
I am always greatly impressed whenever I encounter a recording with Oramo on the podium. One such example is his 2018 Chandos recording of the music of Florent Schmitt with this same orchestra. Another is his 2021 Ravel collection with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for BIS, which displayed many of the same characteristics. Given that was with a different orchestra and a different record label working in a different hall, I must therefore conclude that this amazing orchestral sound is all Oramo's doing - regardless of orchestra, recording venue or record label. And what he produces is simply extraordinary. We hear a gorgeous orchestral palette of color - lush and cushioned on air in the midrange - with some of the most sumptuous string sound you'll ever hear, creating ravishing textures. On my current (fairly new) SACD player, this Chandos recording is surely one of the most natural and realistic portrayals of a full symphony orchestra I have yet experienced on my home stereo system. It simply sounds like the real thing in a real hall. And it's positively glorious.
Getting now to the music, it is indescribable. Except to say, if you know the music of Arnold Bax, you will know what to expect. That being said, credit must go to Oramo - not only for the salient qualities described above, but for his magnificent command of tempos. In the Third Symphony, looking at the first movement alone, the booklet lists no fewer than 15 different tempo indications! All within the overall indication of Drammatico. Oramo takes it all in stride, infusing every passage with a propulsive impetus, directing each contrast of tempo and mood to flow seamlessly into the next with natural forward momentum. And this continues in the second movement Andante, where Oramo gives the “poco piu mosso” indication its full significance, encouraging expressive singing lines to predominate over any hint of excessive seriousness.
The infectious Vivace isn’t just fast and vivacious (though it certainly is that), it’s fleet and almost humorous at times - with inventive orchestral effects and gorgeous, rapturously singing strings punctuated by delightful woodwind interjections. The orchestration is magnificent in this symphony - especially so here, titillating the ear in every bar.
The Finale is more passionate (as indicated), but again Oramo doesn’t allow it to weigh itself down with emotional baggage. Even with the frequent “meno mosso” indications, he continues to keep the tempo flowing with natural momentum, taking us to the final Presto, which thrillingly concludes what is in my estimation a truly monumental 20th-Century symphony. It is certainly one of Ms. Bacewicz’s supreme masterpieces.
After this, the 4th Symphony has an almost insurmountable challenge of equaling it. And it very nearly does. It is not quite as exquisitely alluring as the 3rd, but more dramatic and dynamic - featuring the brass (and percussion) more prominently (and still impassioned with the essence of Arnold Bax). However, Bacewicz is much more restless and fervent in this work, often building to big, powerful, thickly scored climaxes with the orchestra at full cry, which she tended to avoid in the earlier symphony.
In the opening Appassionato, we hear fascinating interplay between sections of the orchestra - shimmering strings answered by muted trumpets, for example. There is delicacy too, featuring the harp and expressive woodwind solos (especially double reeds), soon taken over by rhythmic pronouncements from insistent brass. And so it goes throughout - incisive, energetic motifs alternating with ravishing expression, all orchestrated with amazing effectiveness.
At last, the distinctive flavor of Szymanowski appears in the Adagio (the booklet frequently makes mention of the elder composer) along with subtle hints of Bartok, before being overcome by a powerful section featuring ff brass. The bustling Scherzo Vivace is more vigorous (and less charming) than that in the earlier symphony, reminding me somewhat of William Walton, with its spiky rhythms and an Eb Clarinet biting through the texture. It’s playful too at times, with interesting back and forth interjections among various winds, with relentlessly busy strings scurrying beneath.
The final movement is a bit unusual, perhaps providing a glimpse into Bacewicz's later-period compositional style yet to come. It begins with a very quiet Adagio, but soon swells into extended passages of rather unpleasant atonal brass at ff, before an Allegro furioso takes over with enormous propulsion - turbulent strings competing with pounding timpani and fanfare-like brass declarations. Tension builds (again reminding me of Walton) with interesting back-and-forth commentary from each section of the orchestra, until suddenly released, relaxing into a glorious meno mosso full of atmosphere. It doesn't last long before another brief furioso section leads to a final brass proclamation, bringing the symphony to a rather abrupt, unexpected conclusion, curiously without resolution.
If not quite as overwhelmingly awe-inspiring as its predecessor, this symphony is nonetheless an amazing achievement - again demonstrating boundless creativity and fascinating orchestration. Oramo delivers a tour de force in musical involvement and sensational orchestral accomplishment - which, in and of itself, is most impressive.
After this, appended at the very end of the disc for no conceivable reason, is an Overture. It isn’t an encore - and the ending of the 4th Symphony certainly doesn't lend itself to prompting one. It’s an Overture. One wonders if producer Brian Pidgeon understands what an Overture is and what purpose it serves in a musical program. Putting it at the end, as if just an afterthought, simply defies logic. Nevertheless, I am happy it is included and I dutifully programmed the disc player to play it first - just as it would be at a live concert. It is a splendid 5-minute concert-opener which sets the stage perfectly for a marvelous program of symphonic music to follow.
I wasn’t expecting to be as thoroughly enamored with this music, or so completely engaged and immersed into the music-making, as I was. These symphonies are some of the most rewarding musical discoveries I’ve heard in ages. I loved every minute of this recording and have to say it's already on my “Best of the Year” list - and it’s only January! I can hardly give it more praise than that.
This is essential listening for anyone who is passionate about orchestral music conducted with true inspiration and played with commitment, involvement, charisma and character - traits too rarely encountered from too many of today’s symphony orchestras and jet-setting conductors. Recorded in demonstration-worthy SACD sound, orchestral recordings simply don’t get any better than this. And I can’t wait for the projected Volume 2 in the series.