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WEINBERG: In search of freedom = Piano Quintet & 2 Quartets – Nikita Mndoyants, p./ Zemlinsky Q. – Praga Digitals

Expert readings of the more elusive of Weinberg’s chamber music come to us in keenly-wrought sound.

WEINBERG: In search of freedom = Piano Quintet, Op. 18; String Quartet No. 10, Op. 85; String Quartet No. 13, Op. 118 – Nikita Mndoyants, p./ Zemlinsky Quartet – Praga Digitals mutichannel SACD PRD 250 296, 78:47 (10/9/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:  

Common musical consensus claims that the style of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919- 1996) derives from several influences: Bartok, Miaskovsky, Mahler, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Most of the 150 works of this Polish composer from the Warsaw Ghetto remains painfully autobiographical in nature, a kind of musical documentation of a beleaguered humanity. The Piano Quintet in f minor (1945) received its world premier in Moscow from Emil Gilels and members of the Bolshoi Theatre strings. In five movements, it parallels aspects of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, though perhaps more bitter in affect.

The two scherzos propel the work with a grueling angst. The first movement, Moderato, weaves a melancholy odyssey through the circle of fifths. In the first scherzo: Allegretto, the color effects call for trills and harmonics, as well as selective col legno. The viola part (Petr Holman) proves gripping. Hints of folk tunes pervade the entire composition, adding to the valediction of the occasion. A Presto follows, a Bartok-like movement whose keyboard part sounds relatively diatonic against the banshee strings as they engage in a dizzy drunken waltz and tango.  The keyboard part begins to break away in quasi-cadenza, a premonition of the extended solo of the Largo movement. When the piano joins its complementary principals, the effect becomes “symphonic” and quite virtuosic.

Unisono, the expansive Largo presents a formidable tune, martial and solemnly grave. The violin (Frantisek Soucek) enters with a cantilena melody, and then a canon ensues. Pianist Mndoyants (b. 1989) enters with a long solo, a mix of parlando recitative and jazz improvisation. The cello (Valentin Fortin) tops off the solo in a kind of cello sonata; then the other strings, unisono, harmonize with the piano’s isolated chords.  Pizzicato effects mark the reprise, moving ineluctably to a hushed c-sharp minor. Weinberg wishes his otherwise grim work to conclude in the sunshine, so the Allegro agitato fifth movement moves by circuitous routes to F Major. The opening, however, injects a buzzing sense of menace, percussive and driven, almost a weird dance by Khachaturian. Then a wild gigue in F erupts, with violin, viola, and piano in a canon. Weinberg opts for variations, mostly in the minor. The piano part, martellato, punches out a scale in a manner reminiscent of Prokofiev. Suddenly, a sense of repose settles in, despite rhythmic impulses and high harmonics that could have become disruptive.

The 1964 String Quartet No. 10 means to serve as a love-letter to Weinberg’s second wife, Olga Rakhalskaya.   In this regard, Weinberg follows his mentor Shostakovich, who in his Ninth Quartet, celebrated wife Irina. The four movements of the Weinberg Quartet move attacca, in one uninterrupted flow of ideas. The elegiac Adagio proceeds in a minor, with imitative triplets defining the main motif.  The arch-form dies away, pianissimo, so the Allegro may emerge, a bravura, moto-perpetuo scherzo in askew metric, canonical units. A haunted intimacy marks the entire progression, especially in the concertante violin part.   The brief Adagio movement opens discordantly, a powerful, uncompromising declaration of a passion in the desert. Cellist Fortin leads us into the finale: Allegretto, in ¾, a through-composed waltz rife with appoggiaturas that will later reveal cyclic intentions when the opening atmosphere returns. At key moments, the falling intervals allude to the opening movement of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.

The concentrated String Quartet No. 13 (1977), dedicated to the Borodin Quartet, speaks in Bartok’s expressive syntax, though its architecture does not appear archlike. The opening theme once more pervades the various sections, but they lack any Italian “character” designations and supply mere metronome markings. The plaintive opening movement does remain tonal, rooted in D-flat Major. Diatonic progressions suddenly confront richly chromatic, dissonant unison chords, and we hear perfect fourths, quasi-scherzo.  The slow movement enters by way of detached chords in long, separated notes. The viola enjoys a cadenza, fff though muted, accompanied by angry chords in the assisting instruments. An atmosphere of Bartok – and Kafka – prevails, disturbed and doubtless a testament to the grim austerity of Shostakovich.

The surround sound elements of this May 2015 recording seem to me of less import than the close miking of a truly intense and intimate group of compositions, expertly reproduced by Jiri Gemrot.  Recommended for adventurers into Weinberg’s special universe, in hi-res or not.

—Gary Lemco

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