WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4; Piano Quintet – Gidon Kremer, v./ Yulianna Avdeeva, p./ Mate Bekavac, clarinet / Kremerata Baltica/Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – ECM New Series

A major Russian composer emerges in these scintillating chamber works. 

WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 4; Piano Quintet – Gidon Kremer, v./ Yulianna Avdeeva, p./ Mate Bekavac, clarinet / Kremerata Baltica/Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – ECM New Series 2538/39, 79:45, 79:40, *****:

It’s hard to imagine how difficult it was to be a Polish Jew in the mid-twentieth century. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was an accomplished pianist and had written one string quartet by the age of 20 when Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 forced him to flee to Minsk, Russia. Two years later he learned that the Nazis had burned his mother and sister. In 1943, the German invasion of Russia forced him to flee to Tashkent, in present day Uzbekistan. He had the confidence to send his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich, who arranged for him to move to Moscow. They became close friends and Weinberg lived there for the rest of his life as a freelance composer and pianist.

While he never formally studied with Shostakovich, Weinberg said of his colleague, “I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.” Although Weinberg’s music was known and performed in Russia (Kogan, Oistrakh, Gilels, Rostropovich and the Borodin Quartet championed his works), his music was not well known outside the Soviet Union, until recently. Weinberg rarely taught other musicians, and refrained from publicizing his own music. His prodigious output (26 symphonies, numerous sonatas for solo stringed instruments and piano, operas, film scores and 17 string quartets) became associated with Shostakovich, who was famous outside of Russia. But, unlike Shostakovich, there is an underlying serenity and spirituality in his music that belies the horrific events of his life. He was a self-taught composer who never let external events prevent him from pursuing his musical path.

Three of the chamber symphonies on this disc were originally string quartets and reworked at the end of Weinberg’s career. The Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1986) was a revision of his String Quartet No. 2 (1939-40). Its serenade-like quality, transparent textures and cheerful demeanor are a contradiction to the emotionally difficult war period when it was written. Yet, as Weinberg biographer David Fanning surmises in his perceptive program notes, his departed mother and sister must have been on his mind in 1986 when he revised the heartbreakingly nostalgic “Andante” and added the pensive “Allegretto” as a bridge to the ebullient “Presto.”

The Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1987) is a re-working of his third String Quartet (1944). The first movement alternates the lyrical with the intense and the added “Pesante” begins playfully and ends seriously. The slow movement extends the uncompromising darkness, perhaps reflecting Weinberg’s gradual isolation, even though he was awarded the State Prize for this work in 1990.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3 (1990) is based on String Quartet No. 5 (1945), but with considerable changes. The “Lento” is dominated by a somber but beautiful melody. The diverting “scherzo” is energetic, but, unlike Shostakovich, has none of the bitterness of his friend’s ‘jokes.’ The quiet “Adagio” returns to the sobriety of the first movement. The curious “Andantino,” (an addition to the Fifth Quartet) is a quiet pizzicato waltz, delicate in its mystical, longing. But its profound ending expresses the reflections of a person approaching the end of his life.

Weinberg earned his living as a pianist when he arrived in Moscow in 1943. Although he focused on composing string quartets, Shostakovich’s imposing Piano Quintet of 1940 loomed large. He decided to write his own Piano Quintet in 1944, and it became one of Weinberg’s most imposing creations.

The juxtaposition of lyrical and march-like themes of the first movement sonata structure become the major musical material of the Quintet. Weinberg’s skill at contrasting and developing these themes make the first movement memorable. The first scherzo contrasts a gentle folk melody with sharp, motoric chords. The second scherzo (“Presto”) is a devilish, version of 20th-century café music. The brooding “Largo” evolves into a nervous dialogue between piano and strings. The finale is an energetic and boisterous dance that ends quietly.

The arrangement for chamber orchestra (by Gidon Kremer and Andrey Pushkarev) adds a fullness and emotional heft to the original and could be an attractive work for many chamber orchestras. The pianist Yulianna Avdeeva plays with spirit and virtuosity and the orchestra is precise and heartfelt. This is a major work that’s a significant addition to the renaissance of Weinberg’s music in the 21st-century.

The last decade of Wenberg’s life was spent in relative isolation, due to ill health, loss of friends to emigration and death, and a gradual decline in interest of his music. More avant-garde composers dominated Russian music (Schnittke, Gubaidulina). But major works were still performed and he continued his prolific creative life – especially in the symphonic realm.

The Chamber Symphony No. 4 (1992) for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra was Weinberg’s last completed work. A beautifully plaintive chorale, taken from his last opera, The Portrait begins the work. The clarinet slowly plays a mournful klezmer-like section. The calm is brutally interrupted by buzzing strings and wailing clarinet chords. The turmoil continues, punctuated by clarinet, violin and cello solos. A profoundly sorrowful “Adagio” is heart-wrenching and the clarinet screams…then mourns. The finale continues the elegiac mood of the music, as if the clarinet is musing on Weinberg’s life. It’s one of the most emotionally and spiritually penetrating works this composer ever wrote. Mate Bekavac is a riveting clarinetist.

This album continues Gidon Kremer’s advocacy of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music and celebrates Kremer’s 70th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the formation of Kremerata Baltica. It is superbly played and recorded, and is a great place to start to become acquainted with his music.

—Robert Moon

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