Mieczysław Weinberg – String Quartets 7, 8; Serenade – Alto Records

by | Oct 8, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

WEINBERG: Serenade for Orchestra; String Quartet Nos. 7 & 8; Sinfonietta [complete credits below] – Alto ALC 1458 (4/21/23) (79:13) [www.altocd.com] *****:

Alto assembles recordings of works by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), the Polish-born composer whose music appeared in Soviet Russia; these documents date 1956-1962. Weinberg’s music found disfavor by the Soviet government, despite his friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who had aided in Weinberg’s relocation first to Minsk and then Taskent during the Nazi invasion of Poland, resulting in the slaughter of Weinberg’s family by the Holocaust. The notorious Zhdanov Decree of 1948 banned much of Weinberg’s music on the grounds of “formalism,” and he was arrested by Stalin’s thugs in 1953, part of the “Doctor’s Plot” against Jewish intellectuals. Stalin’s death that year resulted in Weinberg’s release, facilitated by various, musical notables: Kyrill Kondrashin, Rudolf Barshai, Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, and Mstislav Rostropovich. A resurgence of interest, beginning in the 1960s, alerted some audiences in the West of Weinberg’s talent, although in his last years Weinberg felt generally abandoned. 

The program begins with conductor Alexander Gauk’s 1956 recording of Weinberg’s Serenade for Orchestra of 1952. Given the 1948 prohibition on his more serious music, Weinberg complied with Soviet authorities by writing in a light, playful mood.  A lyrical Allegretto sets a bucolic tone, the melody fluently contoured. The secondary tune enjoys a folkish color, intoned by winds, horn, and then strings and brass in dotted rhythm. The counterpoint of the two impulses proves eminently attractive. Horn call motifs permeate the raucous second movement, Allegro molto, whose opening motto seems a distant cousin of Bizet’s music for L’Arlesienne. The music assumes a carnival atmosphere, pungently brassy in the manner of friend Shostakovich. Clarinet and English horn dominate the delicately tender Adagio movement, with a cantered gait in pizzicato then arco strings. The last movement, Allegro giocoso, exploits the antiphonal of winds and strings, opening with a flute solo that asks the strings for a brisk response. The trumpet announces a gallop colored by battery sounds reminiscent both Shostakovich and Kabalevsky. The brash energy of the movement increases in girth and volume, involving the trombones and lyric strings, eventually melding the various motives into a triumphant close.

The sonic context alters significantly, with the 1960 String Quartet No. 7 in C, as performed by the Borodin String Quartet. The quartet is dedicated to fellow composer Yuri Levitin (1912-1993), whom Weinberg first met in Tashkent. In three movements, the work begins Adagio, a gentle melody’s becoming expressively intense in dark hues, akin to some of the mesto movements in Bartok. Each of the four instruments contributes palpably to the somber texture. Valentin Berlinsky’s cello proves especially ardent, as does the first violin of Yaroslav Alexandrov. The second movement, Allegretto, provides some emotional respite, set as a polka with Jewish, klezmer influences. This buoyant interlude – what the Borodin Quartet members deemed “Intermezzo” – might remind some listeners of Boccherini, translated into a Slavic medium. Weinberg unites the last two movements, Adagio – Allegro moderato, with a strong sense of cyclical structure. The Adagio bears a powerful ethnic impulse, akin to Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew melodies, dark, somber, and passionate. After two minutes. The music introduces a theme and 23 variations, opening at once in counterpoint. The variants evolve by quoting past motifs, introducing march rhythms and strongly punctuated episodes. The first violin part often assumes a concertante modality, a miniature concerto set against “symphonic” accompaniment. In the calmer episodes, the work resembles Bartok or Kodaly, when they imitate Beethoven. This visceral, compelling music has found its ideal realization in this account rescued from Melodiya Records. 

The one-movement String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, specifically composed for the Borodin Quartet, premiered in 1959. The Borodin performances dates from 1961; The 15-minute work likely has Bartok as its model, given the rondo-like statements of the opening, eerie, drone theme, Adagio, that permits interruptive episodes. The first violin plays an extended, arioso theme over plucked notes. The first interlude appears, Poco andante, in childlike simplicity that becomes polyphonic and deeply expressive. A full, pregnant silence inaugurates another statement of the gloomy first subject, now a melancholy dirge. A scherzando section ensues, led by the viola that soon explodes into klezmer dance rhythms treated in syncopes with percussive accents in high, strident registers. When the thumping and strummed agitation relents, we are left with plaintive, melodic fragments, another silence heralding the meditative lament that ushers in the wistful, nostalgic coda. 

The 1952 Sinfonietta No. 2 in A Minor for string orchestra and timpani is performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1962. In four movements of approximately equal duration, the piece opens with a thrusting, aggressive energy, Allegro. Each jabbing motif has the timpani punctuate its final cadence. The Allegretto second movement, less vehement, presents a thin, lean texture in bouncing, light texture, though the harmonic syntax remains modally angular, in the manner of Britten and Walton. The music’s progress moves towards sadness, the third movement Adagio deeply pained, a la Mussorgsky, and the last movement, Andantino, desolate, stricken by a terrific but tender homesickness. Somewhere, amidst the spiritual bleakness of Bartok, Shostakovich, and dark Prokofiev, this music occupies an arc of evolving unhappiness.

The sonic remastering of Melodiya originals by Gene Gaudette and Paul Arden-Taylor is pearly smooth and eminently clear. 

—Gary Lemco

Mieczysław Weinberg
String Quartets 7 & 8; Serenade; Sinfonietta:

Serenade for Orchestra, Op. 47/4 – USSR State Radio Orchestra:
String Quartet No. 7 in C Major Op 59, No. 8 in C Minor Op 66 – Borodin String Quartet
Sinfonietta, Op. 74 – Moscow Chamber Orchestra / Rudolf Barshai

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