Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Cello Concerto no. 2

In the first half of the twentieth century the Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó was a highly regarded performer of classical and romantic works, author of many transcriptions and pieces drawing on the aesthetics of Romanticism as well as traditional Spanish music. The idea to entrust this artist with the premiere of a contemporary work, Grażyna Bacewicz’s Cello Concerto No. 2 of 1963, was quite risky. Yet the artist decided to take on the challenge. The composer had high hopes for the premiere of her new piece, but as the premiere – planned for 29 September 1963 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival – approached, she began to have doubts. On the first day of the Festival, 21 September 1963, she wrote to Maria Dziewulska, who was living in Kraków at the time:

The festival begins today, and so does madness and various obligations. I’m slightly worried, because Cassadó is arriving on the 27th in the evening (he’s due to play on the 29th), so he’ll have only two rehearsals. The orchestra is already working on the piece, but, because of the way it’s written, without the cello part, which is a thread binding the whole music into a meaning, the orchestra players don’t really understand what’s going on. I didn’t expect this to be so bizarre and I don’t know if Cassadó, who hasn’t played much new music in his life, won’t get lost, when he hears the goings-on in the orchestra, because his part is quite normal. Unless he’s saved by his brilliant routine.

Unfortunately, the “brilliant routine” this time failed to work; at some point Cassadó got lost and the composer was not happy with the performance.

Cello Concerto No. 2 belongs to a period in Bacewicz’s oeuvre dominated by the sonoristic technique. The composer gave it an individual tone, combining elements of old motivic work with pure sound, and in the case of large cyclic works, like Cello Concerto No. 2 – with traditional form building methods. The key to understanding the concept behind the piece is the composer’s remark concerning the solo instrument part, which is a “thread binding the whole music into a meaning”, for the traditional motivic relationship between the solo instrument and the orchestra disappears here (with some minor exceptions), and the whole resembles a mosaic made up of “objects” scattered all over the sound space and rarely getting united into texturally homogenous wholes. This gives the whole a certain “lightness” and transparency, far removed from the monumental nature of many of Bacewicz’s previous works, but may cause the danger of some disintegration of the material, a problem that weighed down the first performances of the concerto.

It begins with a “colourful patch” of the entire orchestra (standing chords, held over several bars, of the strings and the wind instruments, ostinatos of the bongos and short interventions of the other instruments), but as early as in bar 14 (Meno mosso, dolce) the cello enters with a contemplative phrase which can be considered to be the main theme of the movement, marked Allegro (fantastico) not without a reason. The eight-bar theme uses the full twelve-tone series, with one note being repeated twice (D). The main four-bar motif of the theme then appears a fifth up (from E4) but without the size of the intervals being preserved (for example, the major sixth from the beginning of the theme is replaced with a minor sixth etc.), and this is followed by thematic work making the whole dynamic and leading to a series of dramatic shifts. In the cello part increasingly fast passages and interval scales are followed by purely sonic sequences, for example short chordal ostinatos juxtaposed with monorthythmic, parallel passages in the strings. They make up moving clusters, which fill the twelve-tone spaces almost completely and are complemented by dense tremolandos in the wind instruments and a sharp piano cluster at the climax. After the orchestra has calmed down and the sound of the cello has disappeared in a quiet trill, there emerges another sequence marked Meno mosso (no. 14) with a fairy-tale solo of the celesta and the instruments accompanying it: the vibraphone and both harps. This ends in a Più mosso fragment and increasingly dynamic passages, this time in the strings, until another Poco meno mosso.  Such undulating emotions are characteristic of this movement, in which we can find relics of the sonata form with a development of the theme in no. 20 and a “reprise-like” repetition in a slightly changed form in no. 31.

In the colouristically exceptionally subtle second movement (Adagio) the cello spins its cantilena thread, creating a spider web of changing orchestral colours woven out of short motifs, polyphonic tangles, small imitative figures, ostinatos and scattered chords. The movement, which begins with a solo tremolo of the viola (sul tasto), ends with a fading flageolet of the solo violin with a short glissando (sul tasto) and delicate pizzicatos of the cello.

The third movement (Allegro) is a scherzo in which the role of the trio is played by a fragment when the cello falls silent and the piano becomes the leading instrument with passages of slightly changed and progressively repeated four-note figures taken over at some point by the celesta. A gradual rallentando, streaks of long held notes in the strings and wind instruments or a calm ostinato of other instruments distinguish this fragment like old particles contrasted with the whole (from bar 5 after no. 11 to no. 16). Despite the fact that the two outer fragments, especially in the first, are marked by changes of tempo and metre, the parts are decidedly virtuosic, with a dominant role being played by the cello. While the first fragment is a mosaic of quickly changing sonic situations, cantilena motifs in the cello alternating with staccato sequences, slow tremolando and chord sections, the final fragment is more compact and marked by quick cello passages, also played glissando spiccato, alternating with variously formed chord sequences. In this fragment the orchestra seems to be entering into a closer dialogue with the solo instrument, for example by taking over the glissando spiccato technique in the string section, although this is not a motivic relationship in the traditional sense.

The composer’s innovative approach to the concertance question and less than stellar first performance resulted in a wave of criticism. As Tadeusz A. Zieliński wrote,

The quasi-romantic poetics of the melody sounds a bit artificial in the new, atonal sound world, and the motifs and figures wandering all over the twelve-tone scale are not weighty and vivid enough to engage the listener’s attention and memory.

Roman Suchecki replied to this in a letter to Wanda Bacewicz:

My attitude to the piece is very personal and strongly emotional. I like good music, which is also wise and in which there are no unnecessary notes, and this is what Cello Concerto No. 2 is like.

Today Bacewicz’s work can be found in the repertoires of many eminent cellists; there are also recordings confirming Roman Suchecki’s thesis that this music is wise and striking.