Jerzy BAUER – Music for cello
Toccata Classic 2017
TOCC 0385

This article originally appeared in Issue 41:3 (Jan/Feb 2018) of Fanfare

If the notes for this album of music by the Polish composer Jerzy Bauer are accurate – and of course there’s no reason to suppose that they’re not – that this is only the second collection ever devoted to his music, then you’ll quickly begin to wonder why, given its quality. Born in 1936 in the gritty industrial city of Łódź – Arthur Rubinstein’s birthplace – and trained at the city’s Academy of Music where he later taught for many years, Bauer completed his musical education in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. While the notes suggest that Bauer played the instrument himself, his “interest in the cello has a biographical context: his son Andrzej is now one of the best-known cellists in Poland.”

The Cello Concerto No. 2 from 2013 is a reworking of an earlier concerto from 1985. A substantial work of 24 minutes, it actually feels much longer than it is – in the best possible sense. After a powerful and unsettling opening movement called “Emanations” – grinding minor seconds, imaginatively employed, will unsettle anyone – Bauer unveils his French credentials in an “Interludium” as light and translucent as anything in Dutilleux. The final movement, “Analecta” (“selected passages from the writings of an author or of different authors”) is the most richly various of the three, with jazzy passages vying with march-like episodes until – after a huge ruckus – it concludes in a surprising but not entirely reassuring calm. The concerto certainly isn’t an easy work to penetrate, but with each repeated hearing it grows in stature and depth.

The shorter works, all under 10 minutes, are no less striking, beginning with 3 Primitivi, which the composer says “is the result of a search for reasons for the fascination with the rhythm of the African people, listening to recordings, to the rhythms of the black land, and an attempt to transfer the ‘rhythmic climate’ to the piano and cello, as intended for my musically growing and developing son.

The sound material is primitive, and the rhythms are elementary, hence the title.” The younger Bauer sorts out the exhilarating, asymmetrical rhythms masterfully, ably supported by pianist Jan Krzysztof Broja, who sounds as though the driving piano part had been written for him as well. While what any of it has to do with African music is an open question – the program annotator finds the rhythms Balkan and its textures Asian – it’s a striking and distinctive work and an enormous amount of fun.

Like the concerto, the Sonata in One Movement – written “for my son’s diploma concert at the time of his graduation” – manages to cram an enormous amount of information into a very compact space, including a pair of rhapsodic cadenza-like passages and a lovely andante which clearly betrays the composer’s passion for the music of Ravel. The Passacaglia – Almost in the Old Style is as challenging to absorb as it sounds to play, its subtitle a reference “to the ‘former style’ of the music of the mid-twentieth century, before the apogee of ‘historically informed performance’ and the wave of research conducted by musical archeologists.” In short, it’s a free-wheeling, dangerous-sounding piece which yields its secrets more slowly than any of the other works.

Most engaging of all is This – and how’s that for a title? – inspired by the poem of that name by the Nobel Prize-winning Czesław Miłosz, particularly the key line “Because This means an encounter with a stone wall and understanding that the wall will not yield to any of our begging.” That the stone wall is clearly death is obvious from the principal theme of the piece, the ominous opening bars of the Dies irae from the medieval Mass for the dead. Bauer’s is the latest in a long line of unforgettable treatments of this familiar music, in this case an increasingly frenetic danse macabre full of wit, nervous energy, and constant surprise. As in all the performances on the album, this one seems definitive, and makes you wonder all the more why a composer of this obvious importance should be so shockingly little known.

Jim Svejda