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MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG: Complete String Quartets – Quatuor Danel – CPO (6 CDs)

MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG: Complete String Quartets – Quatuor Danel – CPO 777 913-2 (6 CDs), TT: 436:41, [Distr. by Naxos] (4/29/14) *****:

It’s hard to imagine how difficult it was to be a Polish Jew in the mid- twentieth century. The life of Mieczyslaw Weinberg [also spelled Moisy Vainberg] (1919-96) was privy to terrifying historical events that would seem to predetermine that his musical output—which was prodigious—would reflect the events he survived. At the tender age of 20, he was a music student in the Warsaw Conservatory and had already written one string quartet and several other works when Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 forced him to flee to Minsk, Russia. Two years later he learned that the Nazi had burned his parents. In 1943, he was forced to flee Germany’s invasion of Russia. Fortunately when he arrived in Tashkent, he had the self-confidence to send his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich, who, liking the work, arranged for him to come to Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life as a freelance composer and pianist.

But that wasn’t the end of his persecution. In 1948, at the infamous Soviet Composers’ Union Congress, he was outed as a formalistic and cosmopolitan artist—code words for Jewish musician. His father-in-law, Solomon Mikhoels, a famous Jewish actor in Russia, was murdered on direct orders of Joseph Stalin. Although Weinberg escaped sanctions, later in 1953 he was arrested for the ridiculous charge of leading a plot to set up a Jewish republic in Crimea. (That’s ironic, given Putin’s recent action annexing Crimea.)  Weinberg was in poor health and barely survived his cruel treatment in prison.  Shostakovich’s brave letter to authorities protesting his friend’s innocence and Stalin’s death in March of that year lead to his release from prison.

Shostakovich was no stranger to Russian persecution, and the two became friends when Weinberg moved to Moscow in 1943. While he never formally studied with Shostakovich, Weinberg said of his colleague, “I count myself has his pupil, his flesh and blood.” At one time the two held a friendly competition as to which would complete his tenth quartet first (both had completed nine quartets).

Shostakovich won. And, of course, one of the reasons Weinberg’s music has only surfaced in the past decade or two is his undeserved reputation as a Shostakovich clone. Another reason is Weinberg’s prodigious output: 26 symphonies, numerous sonatas for solo stringed instruments and piano, operas and film scores, and the 17 string quartets contained on these six discs. The amazing aspect of listening to these wonderful works is that, unlike Shostakovich, there is an underlying serenity and acceptance of the chaotic surrounding events in some of these quartets that only can speak of a sense of spirituality that must have been a part of his DNA.

The marches, the long flowing melodic ideas, sophisticated thematic development, clear textures, chromatic dissonance, and basic tonality are similar to Shostakovich’s quartets. Weinberg’s scherzos are ironic, but lack the dark cutting edge of Shostakovich’s. Bleak episodes exist in the quartets on this disc, but they are relieved by a more positive emotional landscape, especially in the earlier quartets. Quiet endings are hopeful and serene, rather than hopeless. Compositional influences include Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Mahler, Hindemith and Bartok—especially in the late works. There’s a strong Jewish origin (using Klezmer thematic material) to many of these quartets. For those who love the Shostakovich and Bartok quartets, this is a world connected but different—with an originality of its own.

While the first two string quartets of Weinberg were written in his youth, the 1985 revision of his String Quartet No. 1 (1937) makes it a mature work. Largely self-taught as a composer, his first work demonstrates a modern awareness of chromaticism and polyrhythm, but the lyric and tender slow movement reveals a heart underneath modern techniques. The Second String Quartet (1939-40) was dedicated to his mother and sister—before he knew of their horrible death. It’s a student work, revised in 1987, with an emotionally dark third movement that is a wonderful synergy of drama and lyricism.

The next three quartets were penned after Weinberg arrived in Moscow—from 1944-46. He enjoyed the friendship of Shostakovich, and was relatively untouched by the communist censors, who were busy with the war. He flourished musically. The String Quartet No. 3 (1944) is expressive, intense, more modern, yet there’s a tenderness to the slow movement—almost as if the composer was weeping for those lost in World War II. The Fourth String Quartet (1946) reflects the impact of the war in its movements—a first movement that juxtaposes nostalgic yearnings for the past with ominous shadows of the future, a war-like toccata, a bleak but heartfelt requiem, and a finale pregnant with images of childhood. The Fifth String Quartet (1945) is spare in texture—both in melody and inspiration. The movement’s titles are expressive (Humoresque, Serenade) and there’s a wistful quality where lyricism dominates at times. These three quartets are masterful—clearly Weinberg has become a significant composer.

The Quartet No. 6, written in 1946, wasn’t premiered until 2007—by the Quatuor Danel. In six movements, it’s an eclectic work, contrapuntally rich, dramatic, pregnant with anxiety and tension, relieved by the now welcome moments of lyricism and tranquility. There are whiffs of Klezmer-inspired dances, two dazzling scherzo-like movements and a pensive fugue that diminishes (stretto) as it ends. It’s the kind of profound work which will grow as one listens throughout a lifetime.

It was seven years before Weinberg wrote his Seventh String Quartet (1957) because of the problems brought on by the “anti-formalist” government campaign of 1948. The vulnerable, confessional mood of the first two movements yielded a meditative slow section that’s interrupted by dance-like shards of ice that melt into a fragile quiescence. The theme and variations finale goes deeper, using musical complexity to thumb the nose at the Soviet authorities, yet ending with a forceful acceptance, with wisps of lingering resignation. For the first time, the Quartet No. 8 (1959) clearly shows the dark emotions of Weinberg’s struggle against the government to win acceptance and attain artistic freedom. It is a dark, yet beautifully melancholic work without the usual positive ending.

The Ninth Quartet (1963) is in one movement with four distinct sections. The energetic, rhythmic contrapuntal first section is relieved by gentle pizzicatos and eerie violin harmonics followed by a despondent andante that is riveting in its intensity. By using repeated notes and a folk dance, Weinberg reaches a coda that is life- affirming. The Danel Quartet’s searing slow movement and the variety in this quartet make it one of the composer’s most creative. The powerful but measured beginning of Quartet No. 10 (1964) gives way to a ghostly, anxious scherzo, muted and dancing on tiptoes. A short slashing and searing adagio transitions to an enigmatic waltz that, unlike previous works, is darkly unresolved.

In the Eleventh Quartet (1966) Weinberg uses instruments that are muted for two-and-a-half movements. Quiet sadness erupts into a boldly expressed conflict that becomes a short, feathery, pizzicato- laced scherzo. The adagio is filled with instrumental solos that are sorrowfully contemplative, but the finale is puzzlingly but graciously elusive. The later quartets show the influence of Bartok—glissandos within pizzicatos, waltz-scherzos, harmonics and col legno. The String Quartet No. 12 (1969-70) uses these devices within a darkening emotional tapestry, or as program annotator David Fanning calls it “desolate wandering.” Brief anxious episodes lead to two scherzos, the first quietly sustains the sadness and the second is a frenetic, ostinato-laden escape. The finale is a multi-stylistic and musically explorative struggle to evade the demons within a canonic structure, duets and a chord repeated 32 times.

Weinberg’s 13th Quartet (1977) is the first after his close friend and colleague Shostakovich died (1975). It’s a short work whose structural elusive nature matches its emotional substance: mournful, a bitingly acerbic and painful scherzo, but largely quiet conclusion. There’s a lyric beauty to this work that sticks in the mind. The Quartet No. 14 (1978) is dedicated to Yury Levitin, a pupil of Shostakovich, and reflects what Weinberg might have imagined his great colleague might have written if he were still alive. This quartet is impassioned, has dark meditative passages, a finale that screams in pain and a despondent, muted beauty that probes the depths of the Russian soul.

Quartet No. 15 (1980) is in nine movements, all without name, except for metronome indications. Weinberg’s exploration of his dour psyche continues, expressed in ever more varied musical means. Slow muted and heartbreaking reflections; quicksilver duos; truculent declarations, and a study in pizzicato all find a place in this original and fascinating work.

The Sixteenth Quartet (1981), in four traditional movements, sustains the dark mood of the previous three quartets, drawing upon ethnic material, with a distinct scherzo-trio that uses oscillating fourths. A sorrowful slow movement leads to a muted, beautiful Jewish-inflected dance, interrupted by Bartokian broken chords, ending calmly. Weinberg’s last quartet—No. 17 (1986) is remarkably hopeful and easygoing, maybe because he revisited his Second Quartet. There’s a melodic cello solo that leads to a tender middle section that returns to the passionate optimism of the beginning. It’s a miracle that the sunlight of his earlier quartets replaces the despondency of the late quartets in this final work.

In listening to these quartets over a span of a couple of weeks, what emerges is the incredible variety within each work and Weinberg’s musical sophistication that grows throughout his lifetime. I’ll gratefully return to them often for musical sustenance. The Quatuor Danel plays passionately and soulfully and the recorded sound is ideal. These are landmark recordings of one of the great quartet cycles of the 20th century.

—Robert Moon

{This is a reissue in a box set of Quatuor Danel’s performances of the complete String Quartets of Mieczslaw Weinberg issued recorded between 2006 and 2009.}

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