MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG: Complete Piano Works 2 = Partita, Op. 54; Piano Sonatina, Op. 49; Piano Sonata No. 4 in B Minor, Op. 56 – Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano – Grand Piano GP 607, 57:28 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
It was probably understandable at one time to dismiss Mieczyslaw Weinberg as a talented Shostakovich epigone, especially in the West. In Russia, this refugee from Nazi-held Poland had an uphill struggle against both Soviet musical conservatism and growing anti-Semitism during the Cold War. In 1953, he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and came close to sharing the fate of his father-in-law, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered under Stalin’s orders (the death made to look like an accident). Only the demise of Stalin saved Weinberg from a similar fate.
Slowly, Russian artists such as Emil Gilels, to whom Weinberg’s Fourth Piano Sonata was dedicated, came to champion the composer. But his fame is largely posthumous, fueled by recordings of his symphonies and chamber works and by revivals in Moscow and Bregenz, Austria, at the 2010 Bregenz Festival, which introduced the West to some of Weinberg’s most important works, including the Requiem and the opera The Passenger.
As with the rest of Weinberg’s oeuvre, recordings of his piano music are a recent phenomenon. So the welcome series of the composer’s complete piano music from Grand Piano enters a field mostly barren of competition. As far as I can tell, the three works on the present recording aren’t currently available otherwise (though Gilels did record the sonata after its debut in 1957). Of the three works on the current program, the Sonatina, completed in 1951, is the one most likely to please the Soviet authorities. Like similar compositions by Kabalevsky and Khachaturian, it is tailored more or less to the abilities of young performers, though a youngster would have to be gifted to wend his way successfully through the rhythmically complicated first movement. Like other such works, Weinberg’s incorporates folk-like material, another sop to the Soviet authorities. And yet the mood is not prevailing light as in Khachaturian’s Sonatina: the second movement is marked Adagietto lugubre and has the air of a funeral march. Plus, the angularity of the first movement seems to chafe against the tenets of socialist realism. Even the prancing finale, which is the folksiest in the Sonatina, ends quietly, equivocally—a kind of downer compared to most music hewing to line of socialist realism.
As David Fanning writes in his informative notes, the Partita of 1953 (the year of Weinberg’s imprisonment and Stalin’s death) is downright bipolar. The composer never published it, probably fearing the reaction of the powers that be. True to its Baroque-derived name, it’s a suite of ten movements with titles such as Sarabande, Chorale, and Aria. The first five movements (Prelude, Chorale, Serenade, Sarabande, and Intermezzo) are relatively sedate, the Serenade being maybe a tad bit more rambunctious than the typical serenade. The Intermezzo seems to repeat the rhythmic pattern of the Prelude, and so we have an almost continuous emotive chain in the first five movements. Then the March introduces the kind of sardonic commentary that Shostakovich made in similar movements with a military flavor. Just as implacable are the troubled Ostinato and relentless Etude, which Fanning rightly compares to the last movement of Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata (No. 2). The mood doesn’t lighten in the flinty final Canon.
There’s more repose in the Fourth Sonata, the first movement wistful, the second, a scherzo, as close as Weinberg gets to charming, though with episodes of clashing dissonance, tension lying just below the surface. The slow movement (marked Adagio) is thoroughly serene but reflective in nature. As with the Sonatina, the Allegro finale has the most folk-musical references: it’s angular, somewhat spiky, driven in spots, but manages to return to the wistful melancholy of the opening movement. From an emotional standpoint, it seems to be the most sustained work on the program and is certainly the finest.
Pianist Allison Franzetti is alert throughout to the mood swings that Weinberg’s music is subject to and plays with both rhythmic agility and clarity and real care as to tone production. This is a very fine playing indeed. Excellent piano sound as well. Recommended as another important milestone on the road to redefining Weinberg’s status among modern composers.
Symphonic Poems by Sibelius