ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG - Symphony No. 6

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MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG - Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47, No. 1 - Symphony No 6, Op. 79 - Vladimir Lande (Conductor) - Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir - St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra - 747313277971 - Released: April 2012 - Naxos 8.572779

On the Crest of a Wave: This is an important and timely release. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996 and also known as Moishei Vainberg or Vaynberg) has achieved prominence in the past two decades thanks to an expanding torrent of recordings of his works. As though blessed by divine providence, the composer's legacy benefitted from excellent performances and typically first-class audio conveyance. This issue from Naxos is no exception in terms of quality. By 2010, Weinberg was the featured composer at the Bregenz Festival with performances of 20 of his works including operas. The man once described as 'the Jewish Shostakovich' is now spoken of as the equal of Shostakovich and Prokofiev at the summit of Soviet music. Weinberg created strong music but avoided the bombastic irony of the former and quicksilver chain-rattling brilliance of the latter. In depth and breadth of feeling, this music can speak to the present day miseries of the new world disorder. In many respects, the continuing revelation of Weinberg resembles the 1960s discovery phase of the Mahler boom. Naxos has previously favoured Weinberg with recordings of chamber music and two accounts of the violin concerto. This venture into the symphonic realm at bargain price should induce more collectors to become acquainted with the composer. It is also good to see renewed Russian interest in this music which was studiously ignored during the last two decades of Weinberg's life. Fortunately for us, he resolutely continued to compose.

The Music: The Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes dates from 1949 when it was premiered in Moscow with Alexander Gauk conducting. Vladimir Lande does a bit of conjuring here; his players lean forward with expectations of an equivalent work by Liszt or Enescu (rather in the manner of Gabriel Chmura in his 2004 recording for Chandos) only to discover something radically different. It starts in a dark and sorrowful place and culminates in what has been described as a 'joyous and unstoppable dance'. Lande renders 'joyous' in a noticeably sinister fashion; a sort of Devil-take-the-hindmost reel which admirably serves to demonstrate the agility of his musicians. Lande is similarly enterprising in the symphony. Competition in the Sixth is strong but the newcomer stands up well in comparison. The work was first performed under Kyrill Kondrashin in 1961 and his 1974 Moscow recording (Olympia now offered by Musical Concepts) is excellent. Vladimir Fedoseyev was one of the few conductors not to forsake Weinberg during the period of consignment to musical oblivion in the USSR. Fedoseyev's 2010 account from Bregenz is also formidable. Symphony No. 6 is cast in five movements with the choral sections placed second, fourth and fifth. It opens with a 15 minute Adagio sostenuto which moves from sombre introspection to generate tension and ultimately naked force. In this, Lande displays considerable grip as a Weinberg interpreter. The choral passages are set to poems by Lev Kvitko (a 1952 victim of the NKVD), Shmuel Halkin (long term Soviet political prisoner) and Mikhail Lukonin (faithful socialist realist party hack). Lande draws a ghostly intonation from the boys' choir which is deeply affecting. The heart of the performance is in the orchestral central movement in which an apocalyptic firestorm is whipped up in the seven minute frenzy in which the St Petersburg State Symphony again distinguishes itself. The only serious complaint about this production (and this applies to both comparative versions as well) is that the vocal text and translation is not provided in the booklet. Unless listeners concentrate on the accompaniment, the choral passages can sound distressingly like the Charlie Brown Christmas Chorale. The poetry of Lvitko and Halkin is as severe and as moving as the verses that Mahler chose to set for Kindertotenlieder and just as necessary to understand. As for Lukonin, from what can be gathered, his Communist drivel about a future of universal harmony (presumably without the burden of democracy) is best tuned out in favour of the remains of the music. Weinberg's decision to use it after four movements of blazing integrity was probably a tactical expedient. Despite the shortcoming, this disc is an essential acquisition for serious collectors of 20th century music.

The Weinberg Code: Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born into a musical family in Warsaw. He entered the Warsaw Conservatory to study piano at the age of twelve. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. With the consent of his family, Weinberg fled to the USSR (probably prior to the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland which began on 17 September). Those familiar with Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (New York 2010) will appreciate the perilous nature of such refuge. Weinberg managed to survive while his parents and sister did not. He accepted a Soviet passport (with transliteration of his name as 'Vainberg') and thousands of Polish Jewish refugees who refused were secretly shot by the NKVD. His formal composition studies under Vasily Zolotaryov in Minsk were interrupted by another German invasion in June 1941. Weinberg landed in Tashkent where he married the daughter of the distinguished actor and stage director, Solomon Mikhoels. Mikhoels provided an introduction to Shostakovich who was so impressed with Weinberg's First Symphony that he arranged for him to come to Moscow. Thus began a close relationship between two titan composers. Affinities to Shostakovich's music can be found in certain Weinberg compositions but the influence really went both ways and is noticeable in the former's late use of Jewish themes. In 1948 Stalin initiated purges against Soviet Jewry. In that year, Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by the NKVD. In January 1953, Weinberg was imprisoned by state security on trumped-up charges of Jewish conspiracy. Shostakovich courageously wrote to Stalin and Beria to demand Weinberg's release. After Stalin died in March, Weinberg was publically rehabilitated and set free. He would go on to complete twenty-six symphonies, seventeen string quartets, seven operas, a requiem and numerous works in other forms. To grasp how far and fast Weinberg's reputation has advanced, note should be taken of comments published in the early 1990s. The composer's entry in the Companion to 20th Century Music (London 1992) by Norman Lebrecht was brief: "Moisei VAINBERG Soviet symphonist of mild modernist inclinations, he recanted during the Zhdanov purge and centred his music on Jewish, Armenian and Polish folk melodies. Whether there is a secret agenda in his 20 symphonies and 12 string quartets remains to be discovered." Weinberg's subsequent biographer, David Fanning, was more prescient in 1993 with, "At least one significant new talent emerged in the Polish-born Moshei (since 1985 Mieczyslaw) Vainberg. The eight out of twenty-two symphonies I have managed to find (dating from 1941 to 1988) suggest a steady flow of expressive, inventive and expertly controlled music, much indebted to, but never wholly overshadowed by Shostakovich." The composer once commented that everything he did was influenced by the war. The loss of his family and his country; the eventual realization that the Soviet Union was just as brutally murderous as Nazi Germany on conquered territory and a narrow personal escape from the last Stalinist terror changed but did not embitter Weinberg. Not yet at the mid-way point of his production on record, it is evident that he has left an enduring testament to experience. His laments are never maudlin but still pierce the heart. He can mobilize a large orchestra to maelstrom intensity and transpose deftly to a reverie without breaking the spell. Uneven aspects may be encountered in some works but Weinberg never loses the overall thread. He conforms to warped Soviet expectation where he must but never at the expense of musical sense and artistic truth. Weinberg did not need a 'secret agenda'. His music is original, explicit, provocative and potent.

Stephen Habington - April 2012