Now that Weinberg’s music is becoming well disseminated, and via a variety of labels, we are in a better position to assess his notable place in compositional life. Cycles of his chamber and orchestral works are underway; it’s to be hoped that a complete symphonic cycle will bring to light his most important large-scale works.
In the meantime we can choose from the commercial recordings work that suit our tastes. This one combines his First Symphony, written diring the Second World War, with the Cello Concerto, begun as war was ending and completed three years later.
The First Symphony was written in Tashkent where he had been evacuated, and it was dedicated to the Red Army, who had facilitated his escape from Poland. The long sonata-allegro with which it opens is a study in extremes, from mollifying figures to the incrementally ratcheted tension of abrasive brass calls and wind flurries. Firmly controlled, it establishes that trenchant control of subject material was already not lacking in the twenty six year old composer. The slow movement is aptly described in the booklet as a ‘symphonic song’ and it does indeed enshrine some Mahlerian melos, tautly expressed and moving. This is contrasted with a free-wheeling, relieved scherzo, that whilst not reaching especially personalised heights does break the mood satisfactorily. The finale courses with the optimistic strains of a chorale, which Weinberg allows to flower and expand throughout the movement adding some strangely winsome moments to infiltrate the writing as well. His finale is artfully constructed however, and cogent, producing a dramatic strain of ultimate victory. There are competing versions, differently coupled. A recent entrant, which I have not yet heard, is by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Thord Svedlund, coupled with the Seventh Symphony [Chandos CHSA5078
The Cello Concerto was completed in 1948 but had to wait until 1957 for its premiere. This was given by Rostropovich with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Samosud. The reason is not hard to fathom. Its Jewish ethos is fairly explicit. At a time of denunciations, state sponsored terror, and ‘Doctors’s Plots’ the time was hardly apposite for a klezmer infused, Freilachs-savvy concerto. Rostropovich was taped in the work with the USSR State and Rozhdesvensky in 1964 [Brilliant 92771
– a ten CD box devoted to the cellist] and his way is compellingly different from others and from Dmitry Khrychov too. The older man understates the adagio introduction whilst Khrychov is heavier of bow weight, and expressive devices, and heavier with the Jewish themes as well. The Freilachs are heard in the second movement of this idiosyncratically structured work, where the flute especially shines, and the brass is self confidently engaged. In the second half of the work however the greater incision and speed of Rostropovich and Samosud begins to tell. One can’t deny that the newcomer is adeptly characterised but the heaviness weighs against it somewhat. That isn’t quite so noticeable in the finale, where the single minded March theme can bear different approaches, before the quiet end. But overall the older performance has more of a sense of contrast and energy.
Nevertheless that recording is a quarter of a century old now. This one is well engineered and performed with sensitivity and control. Questions as to the explicit heaviness of the Jewish themes in the Concerto are perhaps a matter of taste. To my mind a lighter allusion works better but that’s not to underestimate the commitment of this team. Let me end by paying a small tribute of my own to Northern Flowers: this is Volume 5 in their ‘Wartime Music’ series, and they’re doing a tremendous job disseminating new and resissued material. They deserve plaudits.