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Orchestral music by
Vytautas Bacevicius -
reviewed by

'He had much to say and said it very well.'

Vytautas Bacevicius Orchestral Music. © 2005 Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, 2007 Toccata Classics

For far too long the music of Vytautas Bacevicius was available only in a few compositions for piano published decades ago by Mercury Music. These works, though valuable and impressive in their own right, were generally early and hence likely unrepresentative. The compositions, with mystic titles, were tinged by the sound world of Scriabin and were probably dismissed with superficial acquaintance as merely derivative. Closer examination however would reveal that the music was extremely well-crafted, by someone with a very good ear, an excellent sense of writing for the piano and possessing a definite and clear musical message.

But, of his later works, the major works, the significant works, one had only a few mentions in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Yet another example of the oblivion into which so many fine and valuable composers descend. No records, no CDs, no publications and no performances. Just silence -- unless you count those almost mute and thickly dusty scholarly citations.

But Toccata Classics has made a major contribution to remedying this situation and finally bringing to light the works of this composer. On this CD we find major works from all periods of his life and providing a good representation of all of his capacities and characteristics. Beginning with early works and proceeding to the very latest, the selection of works is itself excellent.

Bacevicius was a fine pianist and knew the resources of the instrument thoroughly, with published works mostly from the early Scriabin-influenced era. The Concerto from 1929 demonstrates his mastery of the piano and its combination with orchestra (which I consider frightfully difficult and successfully attained only rarely).

Listen -- Bacevicius: Piano Concerto No 1
(track 2, 13:01-14:13) © 2007 Toccata Classics

The Poème électrique (1932) is another matter and might strike some as dated. Well it is. For the Futurists or say, Mosolov, who found delight and glory in the pounding, grinding and groaning of the modern industrial world are altogether passé. But, Bacevicius' composition is estimable and effective, though now so far out of fashion; the piece is not futurist at all, but 'past tense' in the extreme. Still, it would make a great opener to a concert and in its old-fashioned modernity would not offend the audiences too much.

Listen -- Bacevicius: Poème électrique
(track 1, 4:28-5:25) © 2007 Toccata Classics

The middle era work, the Symphony No 2 (Della Guerra), is another matter entirely. It is a piece of battle music: a type of long and modestly distinguished (?) history. Most interestingly, the symphony has an extremely detailed programme: 'planes flying, bombs raining down, occupation' (first movement), 'an outburst of lament and sorrow from thousands of hearts' (second movement), and in the third movement, 'Germans battle against the Belgians, Dutchmen, Frenchmen and British. The might of the Maginot Line'.

Such detailed assignments of meaning have a long history in this type of music. The nadir was plumbed by the remarkably famous 'Battle of Prague' in the 1790s. No one need have done that again, though they did. Often. Actually, I would put away all of these indicators and listen to the music of this symphony in and of itself. It is in truth very powerful.

Listen -- Bacevicius: Allegro molto (Symphony No 2)
(track 5, 0:00-1:10) © 2007 Toccata Classics

It is with the later works that Bacevicius achieved what he had been seeking. It is preposterous that he did not hear these works performed far and wide, for they certainly capture the zeitgeist of the time and are profound contributions to the sonic world. Bacevicius may have been seeking 'Cosmic Music' but the works of the later period scan the frightful era of the 1950s and early 60s: a time cowering in fear of commies, smugly proud of 'sub-urban' culture, overarched by atomic madness, supine in Freudian analysis, about to collapse under the weight of failed militarism and with a hope for freedom from the locked doors of perception that the drug culture would soon hack away. Ah, for the good old days!

This is urban music to be sure. The noise and crush of the concrete jungle are omnipresent (and so then there is an arc from the early works to the late) and the sound-world can easily be compared to other composers of the same time (some of this music reminds me of Canzoni for Prisoners of 1961/2 by R Murray Schafer, for instance). Even the use of graphic methods to plot new sounds (a confusion of visual for auditory methods that must have gladdened the heart of Marshal McLuhan) was not unique or unusual. It may be that the quintessential artist for the time (the '50s and early '60s) was Jackson Pollock, and all art aspired to be as active, engaged and improvisationally complex as his canvases. Certainly, New York seemed the place to be, and Bacevicius was there, happily or not (the latter more likely).

Bacevicius' outsider status in America is problematic. Do we blame the culture, the artist's personality, luck or something else for the obscurity which this talented artist suffered? Surely culture is extremely wasteful of talent and ignores many while heaping praise upon a few. Some artists shoot themselves in the foot, though the heights to which a drunken, or drug sodden oaf can climb belie the matter. Sometimes, I think it beneficial for artists to have been obscure. Some of them are introverts and too much attention would have drained them and prevented them from completing the task before them. They were lucky to be passed over: it allowed them to be creative. It then falls to a subsequent generation to re-evaluate the situation.

Listen -- Bacevicius: Graphique
(track 7, 10:56-12:14) © 2007 Toccata Classics

Hence, the need for this CD. And a better tool for the re-evaluation could not be asked for. The performances here are first-rate and completely professional. There is not a misstep or irregularity and the musicians have delved deeply into the nature of the music. I don't know how often the musicians had a chance to perform the works though. It's difficult to know if more public performances might have given an extra tinge of magic to the proceedings. Or, if there had been numerous performances before the recording whether this contributed to a certain rigidity of expression. According to informed sources, the pianist Emil Gilels prepared his repertoire and performed it many times before heading to the studio. For after all the experience of concerts, then the music-making for the recording would be an event. Well, that might work for some, but in all cases we need to seek that tiny spark that converts the professional into the artistic. Really, it is very difficult to know what is best. It may be that the musicians' evident potent dedication to this important task fettered them, albeit just a tiny amount.

Still, I have one quibble with Toccata Classics and that is the reference to these works as pointing to 'a new musical language' mentioned on the cover of the CD. Don't be put off by this salesman's puffing, for that is all it is. It is not necessary for a composer to invent a new musical language in order to prove he has something to say. Besides, Bacevicius' sound world might easily be equated with others from the time, from earlier, or later. No, it is not required. Bacevicius was a real composer, whose music should appeal to those who want to hear of the more difficult questions and problems of life. If you want easy listening, check into an elevator. If you want music for use, go to a shopping mall and let the sonic syrup divert you into a good consumer mood. If you want to relive your youth, attend a concert and hear pop music gussied up with the resources of a full symphony orchestra (rather like using a space shuttle to deliver pizzas). If your nervous system is harried by the pace of modern life, then attend upon the minimalists (or ambients) so that you won't be agitated further.

But if you want to hear the reflections of a man whose life was difficult, harsh, perhaps even depressing and who tried to find meaning and significance in these outward matters in order to convert them into an inner reflecting life of sound, then try these pieces by Bacevicius. He had much to say and said it very well.

Copyright © 27 August 2009 Gordon Rumson,
Calgary, Canada








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