PROJECT IN FOCUS. Andrius Žlabys Reads Piano Diary by Vytautas Bacevičius

The piano works of one of the most modern-minded Lithuanian composers of the 20th century, Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-1970), can be surely called his intimate piano diary. Piano music was an inextricable part of the composer's life, starting from the family tradition of music making (Vytautas together with his brother Kęstutis and sister Grażyna made their first public appearance at the age of 11), and ending with recitals held by Bacevičius until late in his career, and his long-term work as a piano teacher.

Like his numerous letters written to the members of his family, his piano works reflect not only the changes and technological pursuits of Bacevičius' compositional style, but also his mood shifts, disappointments, his intimate hours of loneliness and subtle spiritual insights experienced in the complicated and changeable historical context of that time. His piano works reflect quite precisely the influences experienced by Bacevičius in the inter-war period, while travelling from one country to another: from Poland, where he started his studies, to France, where he finished them; from Lithuania, where he began to work and give concerts, to America, where he was compelled to stay due to the outbreak of the Second World War and the fall of the iron curtain. Despite all that, his creative credo always remained the same: to be an avant-gardist looking for undiscovered paths in music. Thus, physically as if not belonging to any country, spiritually he considered himself "of musical nationality, atonal race."

Bacevičius regarded atonality, which he first of all associated with modernity, as a logical and necessary result of the development of music, an organically achieved stage. Thus the larger part of his piano music, except several works from the neo-classical period, called "compromises" by the composer, convey his quest for "individual" atonality: he placed great importance on the emotional and visual origins of music, on the relation between atonal music and abstract painting (he compared the delving into the spheres of abstraction with the striving for light and perfection); he was interested "in creative powers rather than sonic quirks" (1962), not in the search for innovation and idle effects, elaborate combinatorics or artificiality of musical systems (particularly dodecaphony, which he criticised strongly), but in the importance of logics accounting for the unlimited appearance of new musical forms; the development of musical ideas rather than repetition of musical themes, in his words, "the spiritual rather than physical construction of a work" (1958). This kind of thinking gradually turned into the "philosophy of non-recurrent music" connecting all ideas of the composer, in which sound itself is elevated to the level of "a symbol of thought."

The piano served Bacevičius not only as the main source of income through his uneasy life of an emigrant living by private lessons in America, but also as a kind of business card, a means of promoting his work, which did not call for great investments. Like other scarce composers-pianists who continued the tradition of Chopin, still cherished in the early 20th century - like Skryabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Paderewski, De Falla or Bartók, - Bacevičius regarded the piano as an instrument par excellence. Thanks to this instrument, the audience at his recitals had an opportunity to get familiar with his latest creative ideas, while the few surviving recordings of the composer now allow us to hear music in the same way as Bacevičius himself heard it.

Bacevičius' piano works most distinctly reflect his many-faceted artistic identity that was shaped and refined not only by the intersections of different influences (Skryabin, Debussy, Prokofiev, Varèse, the Paris School), but also by the conflict of complementary oppositions: between a pianist and a composer, between the Slavic (Polish) and Baltic (Lithuanian) mentalities, between the European (first of all French) and American understanding of art, between avant-garde and conventional work, between atonality and neo-classicism, originality and standard, individuality and community (belonging to composers' associations), between modern thinking and outsider's attitude, and finally, by the basic conflict between commercial music and idealistic work oriented to a higher goal, which allowed Bacevičius to retain an idealistic vision of a composer, creative process and composition in the pragmatic American world, even regardless of the loss of illusions ("music is a symbol of the highest thought striving for the very nucleus of the Universe," 1960).

photo: Astral Artistic Sercives

Such ambiguity of the genesis of Bacevičius' music accounts for different ways of reading it. Andrius Žlabys, a young and talented Lithuanian pianist, has chosen for his recital Bacevičius' piano works of different periods, covering quite a long span of thirty years: Troisième mot op. 27 (1935), Grand Fantaisie-Impromptu op. 34 (1943), Three Preludes op. 40 (1944), Chanson triste op. 56 (1954), Evocations: Vision, Humoresque, Méditation op. 57 (1955), and the last opus by Bacevičius Trois pensées musicales op. 75 (1966). Having related his career with the United States (he is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music) like Bacevičius (albeit for different reasons), Žlabys is turning the pages of these works like a diary - from a clearly realised time perspective, stopping at every thought and lingering on each detail or mood that has tinted these diary-like pages.

Out of a large variety of ways of reading this music, Žlabys has chosen the one that levels the contrasts and brings out the inner coherence and integrity of this music. The one that does not turn virtuosity into a means of technical perfection aimed at itself or some outer effect (all the more that Žlabys' technique is really impeccable!), but makes it an instrument of textural clarity, inner power and suggestion. While taming the composer's expressionistic outbreaks and in this respect weakening the influence of the Slavic school, Žlabys is looking for the marks of French impressionism that influenced the composer in his youth: the play with emotional undertones, the intimacy of sound, the indefiniteness of sound contours (produced merely by the masterful use of the pedal), and the loss of the sense of time. Expression was very important to Bacevičius; he considered himself an expressionist: it manifests itself in the rapid shifts of moods, density of dissonances or rhythmical sharpness. Yet Žlabys prefers to place emphasis on the restraint and modesty characteristic of Bacevičius' personality and his outsider's attitude: the obvious melodiousness of certain themes does not turn into a romance-like melody, the ostinato character of rhythm consolidates the harmonious structure rather than brings out the rhythmical basis, and gloomy moods are coloured by pensive solitary concentration rather than depression, suddenly and unexpectedly opening the depths typical of Čiurlionis in Bacevičius' music.

© Vita Gruodytė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 12