MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG: Symphony No. 8 (“Polish Flowers”) – Rafał Bartmiński, tenor/ Magdalena Dobrowolska, sop./ Ewa Marciniec, alto/ Warsaw Philharmonic Orch. & Choir/ Antoni Wit – Naxos 8.572873, 58:32 ***:
Mieczyslaw Weinberg is not exactly a household name among composers, although his music has been getting a bit of a renaissance with several recordings over the past ten years (in particular the series of symphonies on Naxos). I was only familiar with his clarinet works; the Sonata and Concerto, prior to hearing some of these dense and conflicted masterworks.
Weinberg is an interesting composer with a most dramatic life, having grown up in Poland during the Nazi invasion. In fact, his name was mistakenly changed to Moisey Vainberg, as the occupation officials put in his travel documents and that caused confusion as to his ethnicity for a bit. It is said that relatives of his were executed during the invasion and that Weinberg, himself, even had to spend some time in prison, accused of subversive activity. How fortunate for the composer, and us, that he survived and lived to 1996.
In most of his works there is a very dramatic, sometimes disjointed and always pessimistic undertone. The Symphony No. 8 is no exception. This nearly hour-long work uses vocal soloists and chorus and full orchestra and is written on poetry by the Polish author Julian Tuwim (whose work Weinberg had also set to a song cycle). The words themselves and the resultant music are largely pessimistic and accusatory. The second movement, Children of Bałuty, for example, discusses the vast social inequities in Poland in between the two world wars. Similarly, and quite bleakly, the sixth movement, Lesson, addresses Polish infants, warning them of the world they are about to grow up in (!)
The symphony is not relentlessly grim and sardonic. The last two movements offer some hope; a vision for what Poland and all of eastern Europe could become. Justice – the ninth movement – speaks to the collapse of the Nazi regime and the Soviet victory. And the final The Vistula Flows refers to the river in Poland whose thaw and flow in the spring brings the wildflowers of the work’s subtitle which symbolize hope and peace.
Interestingly, Weinberg became a good friend and professional colleague of Shostakovich. This work and many of Weinberg’s have several strains of Shostakovich-like harmonies and punctuation running throughout. In fact, Shostakovich himself emulated some of Weinberg’s music in return. The two men actively promoted each other’s work throughout their lives. Ironically, the spirit of the Tuwim verses is dampened a bit knowing that both composers – especially Shostakovich – discovered that Stalinist Russia was not to be trusted in their motivation for the destruction of the Nazis.
This music is certainly a product of one of the darkest periods in European history and it does show. The pathos, irony, sadness and bursts of tempered optimism are all there. I don’t feel it would be fair to take the association with Shostakovich and ask if Weinberg’s music measures up. This particular work is inconsistent. Some movements (for me, There was an Orchard and Warsaw Dogs, in particular) are more effective than others. But the closing is impressive and this piece is well worth having in your collection. (I recommend all the Naxos offerings of his symphonies, in fact.) [We just reviewed the 19th Here…Ed.]
The Warsaw Philharmonic and chorus under Antoni Wit always deliver top notch performance and the soloists are quite good. My one gripe is that Naxos points out that the texts can be accessed from their website. This is true and the Tuwim texts are emotionally dense and complex. However, I still like putting on a CD and grabbing the booklet and reading along, like an opera libretto. You will probably still find this somewhat odd but gripping work rewarding even without this little convenience. [Right. How about if your HDTV is not that smart, or if your computer is in another room?…Ed.]