MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG: Symphony No. 6 for boys’ choir and orchestra, Op. 79; Sinfonietta No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 41 – Vienna Boys’ Choir/ Vienna Sym. Orch./ Vladimir Fedoseyev / Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg / Gerard Korsten – Neos multichannel SACD 11125, 66:59 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
As little as ten years ago, the claim in the booklet notes that Weinberg is a “forgotten composer” might have had a ring of truth. Today, with a Weinberg string quartet project from CPO and a symphony project from Chandos in the works and with attention paid to individual chamber and orchestral pieces by BIS, Naxos, et al., Weinberg can hardly be said to be forgotten or overlooked. And yet during his long life (1919-96), and especially the last three decades, he was so productive that recording companies have a long way to go to do total justice to his oeuvre, which include twenty-two symphonies; seventeen string quartets; around twenty sonatas for piano, violin, and cello; seven operas; plus a gross of film scores.
Neos is certainly doing its part with the Weinberg Edition, of which the current disc is Volume 1. Other volumes include additional symphonies, chamber works, the Requiem, and most importantly, The Passenger, said to be Weinberg’s operatic masterpiece. The Weinberg Edition is based on performances given at the Bregenz Festival of 2010, which featured twenty works; all will presumably be offered on disc.
While the Sixth Symphony is said to be Weinberg’s best-known and -regarded symphony, the current recording seems to be the only one readily available at the moment, though Amazon.com lists four others that were available at one time or other. So it’s very good to have this potent 1963 composition back in the catalog. Weinberg, who fled his native Warsaw at the beginning of World War II and who subsequently lost his parents and sister to the Holocaust, was haunted throughout his life by memories of the War. But the symphony may also make subtle reference to the persecution of Jews in Russia, which includes Weinberg himself, who was imprisoned on trumped-up charges during the last days of Stalin’s regime and only saved from death by a good word put in for him by his friend and colleague Shostakovich, who held him in high regard as a composer.
The cultural thaw after Stalin’s death made works like the Sixth Symphony and Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, “Babi Yar,” possible. The Thirteenth Symphony uses texts of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that portray the massacre of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941. Similarly, in the fourth movement of the Sixth Symphony, Weinberg turns to a poem by Shmuel Halkin, whose work recalls the suffering of the children at Babi Yar. Whereas Shostakovich used a male choir to sing the Yevtushenko texts in his symphony, the Halkin poem inspired Weinberg to use a boys’ choir, which gives the Sixth Symphony added poignancy, especially since the small voices sound particularly vulnerable against the backdrop of the large orchestral forces Weinberg employs. The five movements alternate spiritual desolation, sardonic humor, brutal militancy, and finally something like an air of hopefulness at the end, where “a solitary violin sings of ‘peace on earth.’” Unfortunately, while the NEOS booklet has acres of information, in four languages, about the music, the composer, and the performers, it does not include the texts of the poems Weinberg uses in his symphony.
The First Sinfonietta is a substantial (almost twenty-three minutes) 1948 composition that employs a chamber orchestra and features abbreviated sonata form in the outer movements, thus meriting the title of sinfonietta, though as the notes to the recording suggest, it contains a “profound substructure” under its entertaining surface. It sounds folksy, brash, and impulsive, being praised as a “bright, optimistic” work by composer and apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov. To modern ears, there seems to be more of cheekiness and sarcasm than optimism in the piece. But withal, it is entertaining.
The performances of both works are well-drilled, enthusiastic, benefitting from the adrenalin rush that a live audience produces. The recording of the Sinfonietta features a somewhat noisy audience, but both recordings deploy SACD technology successfully, enjoying a nice sense of openness and depth, though there’s a touch of chilliness that’s probably a function of the hall. A small matter, though, in light of Weinberg’s important music and the fine performances that bring it to life.
The counterculture movie from the 60x