WEINBERG: Suite for Orchestra; Symphony No. 17, ‘Memory’ – Siberian State Sym. Orch./Vladimir Lande – Naxos

A great addition to an important series.

MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG: Suite for Orchestra; Symphony No. 17, ‘Memory’ – Siberian State Sym. Orch./Vladimir Lande – Naxos 8.573565, 64:49 (10/14/16) ****:

I think it is a very good thing that the music of Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg is now getting a fair amount of attention thanks to the dedication of some conductors, such as Vladimir Lande, and thanks to recording companies such as Naxos and Chandos who are making his musical available.

During his lifetime, Weinberg was known mainly as a very gifted concert pianist and only somewhat as a composer. Being a Jew during the second World War his few opportunities for larger renown may have eluded him but for being ‘discovered’ and befriended by Shostakovich in the early 1950s. Weinberg even emigrated to Moscow where he was able to build a nice reputation as a composer, especially among singers. (In point of fact his opera, The Passenger, is considered a modern masterpiece for both its music as well as a plot line that is very much based on ‘post-Holocaust’ themes.)

Weinberg was tremendously prolific and this present disc gives us much to enjoy. The opening Suite for Orchestra is a charming yet somewhat sardonic concert suite that will remind some of the wry side of Shostakovich or even Kabalevsky. My favorite movement is the too brief Romance with lovely trumpet and clarinet melodies that sound plaintive and hint at Hebrew traditional chant. Overall, it is a fun work with moments of great emotion.

The greatest emotion is to be found in Weinberg’s dark, massive and restless Symphony No. 17, subtitled ‘Memory.’ Just writing what would turn out to be twenty-two symphonies is impressive enough but many feel the apex of his work is, indeed, what the composer considered his trilogy, “On the Threshold of War”: the symphonies numbered seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

The Symphony No. 17, heard here, is in the standard four movements but – as is sometimes true of Shostakovich or even Mahler – the outer two movements are softer, slower, darker while the second and third are more urgent and pressing. I found this work to be very gripping right from the start. The opening Adagio sostenuto is dark and foreboding. The second movement, Allegro molto, is built on some ostinato rumblings in strings and piano. Eventually there is a ‘conflict-like’ use of brass and winds that evokes some of the most chaotic pessimism that Shostakovich used. The third movement, Allegro moderato, pesante, is very short but tense and paves the way for the closing Andante; the longest of the four movements. This closing is odd and mysterious at the beginning with some wind chattering before eventually leading to a near outcry within the last few bars.

To fully appreciate Weinberg’s admittedly pessimistic and cautionary atmosphere created with the “Threshold” trilogy I think it is also necessary to hear the Symphony No. 18, ‘War – There is No Word More Cruel’ and the number nineteen, ‘Bright May.’  However, to even get the gist of the talent and vision of this very gifted composer, this recording would make a fine introduction.

I am personally pleased by this entire series on Naxos with Vladimir Lande, and others. The performances are spectacular and the music speaks for itself.

—Daniel Coombs

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