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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Chamber symphony No.3 op.151 for string orchestra (1990) [33:44]
Chamber symphony No.2 op.147 for string orchestra and timpani (1987) [22:40]
Chamber symphony No.1 op.145 for string orchestra (1986) [23:18]
Piano quintet op.18 (1944), arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer [43:26]
Chamber symphony No.4 op.153 for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra (1992) [36:07]
Yulianna Avdeeva (piano), Andrei Pushkarev (percussion), Mate Bekavac (clarinet)
Kremerata Baltica/Gidon Kremer (violin), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
rec. live 13 June 2015, Musikverein Wien, Austria (chamber symphonies 1-3); 9/10 June 2015, Latvian Radio Studio, Riga, Latvia (piano quintet, chamber symphony no.4)
ECM NEW SERIES 2538/39 (4814604) [79:42 + 79:33]

Among all the fantastic and thrilling composer discoveries I have made in the 17 years I’ve been writing reviews for this site, Weinberg is amongst the most rewarding of all. I have loved and admired every work of his that I’ve heard and I don’t know of any other composer I can say that about; there has even been the odd work by Beethoven that I haven’t liked as much as the rest and the same goes for Shostakovich, another composer about whose works I am passionate. In fact those who know Weinberg will be aware of how similar in style he is to his friend and mentor Shostakovich which undoubtedly is a reason for my feelings towards Weinberg’s music. Listening as I am now to this disc of his four chamber symphonies I am minded once again of the large dose of humanity that his music is imbued with and which is exuded on a continuous basis throughout with every note. Shostakovich’s music often carries a bitter edge and no one could say he did not have good reason for including that sentiment in his compositions but you’d have to search long and hard to find it in Weinberg’s. Yes, you’ll find irony and plenty of wit as you also will with the elder composer but Weinberg’s music is pretty well optimistic overall though goodness knows he had more motivation for writing music with a back edge to it having had to flee the nazi invasion of his native Poland and losing his mother and sister to the holocaust.

Normally I like to listen to and form my review around works written chronologically so as to examine how the composer developed in the particular genre and I might even have done that here despite the order they are presented on the two discs but then reading about the source of the material used it didn’t seem to matter. This is because Weinberg’s string quartet no.2 was reformed for string orchestra becoming his chamber symphony no.1, his third string quartet became his 5th chamber symphony and his chamber symphony no.3 grew out of his fifth quartet. With all this ‘cross pollination’ it seems more sensible to treat them as they come. I have reviewed the third and fourth chamber symphonies before and found the pace of the playing of the first movement of the third too slow for my liking but never having heard it before I put that down to the orchestra’s interpretation though I must confess, without any evidence. Now I am able to compare two versions.

The first movement of the third chamber symphony is a brooding musicscape in any event with a low register dominating its opening and much of the entire movement. With a bare thirty seconds between them the two interpretations are almost identical and given a good number of further listens I must make amends for my previous comments about the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s version by saying I understand now that the pace is intentional on behalf of the composer and both versions must surely have it right. Having taken that on board I can now enjoy it much more. It certainly sets out a rather bleak landscape for which the second short Allegro molto comes as a shock and a surprise, not to say a relief with its incredibly jaunty and amusing theme and one can easily imagine a group of peasants or sailors getting drunk together and attempting to stay upright while doing folk dances. It came as no surprise to read that part of it came from Weinberg’s comic opera Mazl tov! Kremerata Baltica’s recording allows for no break with this movement starting immediately the first has finished, adding to the element of surprise. They do the same with the third movement which returns to a reflective atmosphere and the final movement marked Andantino begins in a similar mood. This is the only section that is wholly independent of his fifth quartet. Basically in waltz time it also has moments that seem to refer to the baroque period. To me the overall feeling of this chamber symphony with the obvious exception of its boisterous second movement outpouring is a rather inward looking and whimsical reflection on loneliness.

As stated above the second chamber symphony scored for string orchestra with a role for principal violin and timpani derives much of its material from his third string quartet though with an original second movement. The opening movement is a slow rather mournful affair though with the occasional brighter moments while the second is marked Pesante which means heavy or ponderous though I think weighty is nearer the mark and which I see as wanting to make a statement. The third and final movement which is an Andante sostenuto is equally ponderous or weighty in atmosphere. While I could hear Gidon Kremer’s principal violin contribution I couldn’t determine the role of the timpani.

Weinberg’s first chamber symphony which grew out of his second string quartet begins in a rather more upbeat mood though with a wistful tinge to it while the second movement retreats into its shell again. The short Allegretto is a waltz like bridge before the final, shorter Presto finale which is an excitable and spirited dash to the close.

The second disc opens with Weinberg’s Piano quintet of 1944 arranged by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer for piano, string orchestra and percussion. This arrangement works very well because the music has more about it than chamber symphonies 1-3 which I must confess did not live up the standard of the other music by Weinberg that I have found so rewarding. I think that music that is written for the string quartet is so often so intimate that it doesn’t always lend itself to be expanded into an orchestral piece even for a chamber orchestra. This work by contrast is full of interest from the start. It is the longest work on either disc and its substantial material makes for a rewarding listen. It was written only three years after Weinberg had escaped again ahead of the invading nazi armies from Minsk finally ending up via Tashkent in Moscow where he made friends with Shostakovich, whose piano quintet had emerged in 1940 to such great success, remaining to this day as one of his most admired and often performed works. Weinberg’s quintet is equally deserving of praise for its exciting music as well as moments of thoughtful reflection. Weinberg also uses the addition of unusual instruments at times as in the second movement when like Shostakovich he introduces wood blocks to great effect, not to say amusement; why does it make you feel that way I wonder? The third movement is set at a faster pace than the opening two with a maniacal waltz making an appearance before collapsing into a gentler pace with a solo violin playing an ironic little tune, the crazy waltz returning again soon after to quicken the pace again before closing the movement. The longest section at over 14 minutes is the Largo in which around 4 minutes in the piano is given the job of establishing a sombre and reflective mood and which is joined around 7’50” by a solo cello reinforcing this mood and a solo violin then joining the other two before the orchestra comes in too. This mood continues unabated culminating with the piano playing staccato-like passages accompanied by plucked violins before dissolving into a calming, gentle close. What a contrast comes now in the finale with strings forming a backdrop of driving intensity and propulsive pianism that precedes a real surprise in the shape of a Celtic inspired jig that comes out of nowhere and the repetition of the piano’s stomping rhythm returns to act as a complete contrast to the Scots or Irish dance tune. The jig gives way to the piano’s propulsive playing which eventually fades away to bring this fascinating music to a satisfying close.

Weinberg’s Chamber symphony no.4 is the only one of his four to be wholly original without any reworking of any specific work though there are several examples of self quotation. I’m all in favour of that since so often composers come up with superbly crafted tunes that are used so briefly that one is left wishing for more development. The opening Lento is a beautifully wistful, nostalgic look back with some echoes of Jewish tunes derived in part from his Symphony no.17 entitled Memory while the second marked Allegro molto –Moderato leaps straight into action with the clarinet sounding klezmer like with the orchestra following like the children in the story of the pied piper. A solo violin then plays a sad and introverted tune followed by a cello that mirrors this feeling of melancholy. The third, Adagio is another nostalgic view of the past with an achingly sad tune first from the clarinet then picked up by the orchestra. This comes from one of the songs from his cycle Reminiscences and towards the end reintroduces the work’s opening chorale with the clarinet reappearing to back up the strings. If by now you had wondered why the symphony says it is scored for clarinet and triangle when you haven’t heard it so far then the opening of the work’s last movement starts with its first appearance or so the booklet notes tell me; I couldn’t hear it but maybe that is more down to my hearing than to the triangulist (should there not be such a word?). There are more folk-like tunes from first the clarinet and then violins. The overall mood here is sad, not to say one of brooding reflection and this derives from a work Weinberg had only recently completed, based on a play by an Israeli author. After a recalling of the symphony’s second section the clarinet makes a declamatory statement in cadenza and the second stroke of the triangle is heard (but again not by me!) and the work fades away into nothingness. The triangle’s last note is said to be like “a pin-prick of light amid the encircling gloom”, so rather tellingly important and I regret missing it. This chamber symphony I found much more satisfying than the first three with some really powerful moments brought to life in a very effective and affecting way.

Gidon Kremer has long been a champion of Weinberg’s music and explains why in the booklet. It is obvious that he rates Weinberg’s chamber symphonies higher than I do but then when you are so closely involved with producing the performance as a player you must get a greater sense of the music’s worth than a mere listener can hope to get. I was always hoping to be convinced by them but frankly apart from the fourth and parts of the others I felt less inspired than when I listen to others of his works. As I stated earlier I think that the string quartet is such an intensely personal statement that reworking large sections in an orchestration loses the intimacy and somehow robs it of some of its essential essence. I am sure that, for me at least, it is why I found the fourth the most satisfying since it was designed from the outset as an orchestral work. That said Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica always gives music the best performance it can expect and this set is no exception; whatever case the music has to make this band will make it. I would like to single out for praise not just Gidon with his wonderfully involving violin playing but also Yulianna Avdeeva whose pianism gives the quintet such an immediacy and Mate Bekavac for superb clarinet playing in the fourth symphony. Finally I would like to pay tribute to Mirga Gražinté-Tyla for her conducting of it; no wonder her steering of the CBSO was so anticipated not that she hadn’t already made her mark with the Salzburger Landestheater and all that by the age of 29; she must have been here before!

Steve Arloff

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