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Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919–1996)
Children’s Songs, Op. 13 (1944/45) [13.35]
Beyond the Border of Past Days, Op. 50 (1951) [22:03]
Rocking the Child, Op. 110 (1973) [24.32]
Olga Kalugina (soprano); Svetlana Nikolayeva (mezzo); Dmitry Korostelyov (piano)
rec. Concert Hall of the Gnessin Musical College, Moscow, January 2006, 19, 23 December 2006, 12 April 2007.

Experience Classicsonline

If you put this disc on blind, you might be forgiven for thinking that the opening group of songs was by Shostakovich. It has the same spiky energy and angular melodic outlines. In fact, they were written by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew, and weren’t in Russian at all. The songs originally set poems of a Polish Jewish poet, Itzhok Lejb Perez, who wrote in Polish and Yiddish. When they were first published in Russia in 1944-45 (the late Stalinist period), they were published in Russian translation and someone called the set Children’s Songs. In fact there is very little that is childish about either the poems or the music but no-one in Stalin’s Russia was going to call them Jewish Songs.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw and fled the Nazi occupation in 1939. First of all he ended up in Belarussia where, in Minsk he studied with a pupil of Rimsky Korsakov. The Nazi invasion of the USSR forced a further flight to Uzbekistan whence he was invited to Moscow by Shostakovich, who had heard his First Symphony. Weinberg lived in Moscow from 1946 until his death in 1996. Although never officially one of Shostakovich’s pupils, his contacts with the master were very close.

Weinberg composed some thirty song cycles and this is volume 1 in Toccata Classics planned complete Weinberg song edition. It should reach an impressive number of volumes when it reaches completion.

Weinberg opens the Children’s Songs, Op. 13 with a wordless Introduction from singer and pianist, this introduces the following four songs which are all relatively light-hearted and carefree; delightful depictions of children’s lives, full of Jewish folk inflections. But at the opening of the next song the mood changes immediately. This one, Grief, is the child’s anguished and puzzled response to a family and home destroyed by war. Weinberg rounds this off with a Coda which repeats the material from the Introduction but this time in a far sadder tone - a lament for the land of lost content.

I would have liked to hear these songs in their original language, but Olga Kalugina’s account of them in Russian is everything it should be. Kalugina has a bright, attractive rather Slavic-sounding voice which seems entirely appropriate to this music. For the Introduction and first four songs she is perfectly in folk mood and in the final song her plangent intensity is profoundly moving. Her upper voice takes on a rather narrow focus when under pressure. The result is not unappealing and rather distinctive though it might not appeal to everyone. As with most Slavic voices, Kalugina has quite a pronounced vibrato but it is not overly intrusive. The core of her voice is solid. She displays a good sense of line when needed but has a lively feel for the rhythmic nature of some of the songs.

Beyond the Border of Past Days, Op. 50, was written in 1951, between the 1948 anti-formalist campaign and Weinberg’s arrest in 1953. Shostakovich wrote to Beria (the head of the secret police) on Weinberg’s behalf and Weinberg was released later in 1953 but did not recover his composing equilibrium until 1957. These songs are amongst the few that Weinberg seems to have written without worrying about official disapproval. The songs set poems by Alexander Blok (1880–1921) a major poet of the late Tsarist and early Bolshevik period. Blok was a Romantic with Symbolist leanings. The opening poem expresses religious exaltation and the remaining songs are all some sort of allegory of redemption - dealing with pain, solace, what has passed and what remains.

Weinberg’s settings are rather more sober than the poetry might imply. They are sung here by mezzo-soprano Svetlana Nikolayeva who imbues them with a rich darkness and a feeling of Russian fatalism. Nikolayeva has a dark mezzo-soprano voice. Like Kalugina she has a strong vibrato around a very firm core of voice. You never feel that you are in danger of losing the essential melodic line as you can with some such voices.

Though these songs are still in Shostakovich’s aura, there is a melancholy darkness which is new. They seem to lack the satiric spikiness that is a characteristic of Shostakovich. Sixteen years after composing these songs Weinberg was in fact the pianist in the first performance of Shostakovich’s Blok Romances, Op. 127.

The final group of songs were written in 1973, two year’s before Shostakovich’s death. The song cycle sets poems by Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957), the Chilean poet and educator. Mistral was a supporter of the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War and so was ideologically acceptable in the Soviet Union. These are all lullabies and Weinberg introduces a rocking motion in the first song - this continues throughout the cycle. We seem a long way from late Shostakovich here.

The vocal line is smooth and melodic and Weinberg’s harmonic language has developed a new fluidity and obliqueness. The poems are not entirely straightforward. They touch on implied social comment and the adult’s need for comfort. Weinberg’s settings accept this, never making the songs quite the simple lullabies that they could be.

Kalugina is equally at home in these late Weinberg songs and her account, often understated, can be quite poignant. In all three song-cycles, the singers are ably accompanied by Dmitry Korostelyov. Weinberg was a pianist himself and Korostelyov seems remarkably unphased by any of the demands that Weinberg makes of him.

This is a fine start to Toccata’s Weinberg series. Weinberg’s music deserves to be better known and this disc should win many converts for his alternative view of Soviet modernism.

Robert Hugill





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