CD of the Week – A Rush of Mieczyslaw Weinbergs
A Rush of Weinbergs
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) would have been mightily surprised at the attention that is turning his way these days. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union fell apart, he let slip a regret that his work ‘belongs in the attic’ because it ‘cannot correspond to current fashion.’ A Hitler refugee and close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg wrote music that was tonal, rhythmic and melodically rich. He wrote too much – 27 symphonies, 17 string quartets, countless concertos. Finding a path into Weinberg is not easy. His opera The Passenger, now on the world circuit, divides critics and audiences alike. Where to begin? is the big question with Weinberg. Recent releases provide some strong tips.
The emerging Weinberg cycle from Sweden’s national orchestra in Gothenburg is beautifully played under Thord Svedlund’s impressive direction. The
woodwind solos are often stunning and the heavy, pounding passages, reminiscent of Shostakovich at his angriest, could put an invading army to flight. The third symphony, rejected by Stalin’s censors in 1949 for being insufficiently ‘of the people, for the people’, received its first performance 11 years later after multiple revisions. It is Weinberg’s first mature symphony and it commands undivided attention for its full half-hour, equal in every way to early Shpostakovich. The disc filler is the Golden Key suite, less compelling.
With a full boys’ choir singing idealistic texts, this 1963 work comes close to off-the-shelf Soviet propaganda. Redemption arrives in the 4th movement, a resetting of Jewish melodies. The filler is a Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes that sounds irresistibly like Jewish wedding music and makes you want to get up and dance the night away. Vladmir Lande conducts the lively, sometimes slightly ragged, St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.
By his 20th symphony (opus 150) in 1988, Weinberg was running low in spirit and ideas. ‘With God’s help I may yet finish this one, but I doubt it,’ he writes on the title page. There is a strong Mahlerian impetus in the five-movement work, a lot of fatalism and not much hope. It would be too depressing without the must-buy on this release – a cello concerto, written for Slava Rostropovich and meltingly delivered by Claes Gunnerson and the Gothenburg orchestra, conductor Third Svedlund. Absolutely compelling.
If ever you need a 20-minute sonata for solo bassoon, it’s here. The rest, nicely curated by the Irish-based pianist Elisaveta Blumina, consists of a clarinet-piano sonata, 12 miniatures for flute and piano and a trio for flute, viola and harp whose textures never fail to astonish. Weinberg had a wonderful ear and a fertile imagination. The playing it top-class. Just listen.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.