Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony No.1, Op. 10 (1942) [39.22]
Symphony No. 7, Op. 81 (1964) [29.33]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (The National Orchestra of Sweden)/Thord Svedlund
rec. 20-21 August 2008, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden
CHANDOS CHSA 5078 [68.55]
When the Germans attacked his home country in 1939, the Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg escaped to Russia. Then Russia became involved in the war, so he again fled from Minsk to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
When Weinberg sent the manuscript of his First Symphony to Shostakovich, the older composer was so impressed that he helped to arrange for a permit allowing Weinberg to settle in Moscow. The two men became close friends, regularly showing their new works to each other, Shostakovich acting as a kind of mentor to Weinberg.
However, it would be wrong to simply assume that Weinberg's music is heavily indebted to Shostakovich's. In fact, there was considerable cross-influence between the two. Weinberg had been particularly stunned by Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, but his own music only shows a degree of influence while asserting its own attractive individuality. Nevertheless, as David Fanning writes in his concise and informative notes: “the general notion of a new lyrical neoclassicism, capable of speaking to the human condition in the mid-twentieth century, was evidently an inspiring one.” To make merely the most general comparison between the two composers, I would say that Weinberg's is brighter, rather more optimistic and genial, less heavily tinged with bitterness or sarcasm and avoiding Shostakovich's occasional bombast. He certainly has a voice of his own, as well as a refreshing ability to combine simplicity and originality. Weinberg's lively imagination guarantees an element of surprise, also combining with his strong sense of overall direction consistently holding the attention.
The Symphony No.1 (dedicated to the Red Army) which so impressed Shostakovich is in four movements, the first being the longest and most weighty. The very opening illustrates Weinberg's gift for diatonic melody, while the second subject is in a contrasting Larghetto tempo. A muscular development section affords Weinberg the space to exercise his contrapuntal skill.
The Lento is deeply lyrical, with Weinberg's memorable melodic invention again evident. Occasionally this music suggests Mahler without the angst. In the scherzo, which has a rather delayed trio section, Weinberg's inspiration seems at a lower level but never less than engaging. Beginning with a vigorous unison passage, the finale has plenty of energy, drive, counterpoint and humour. Again one can easily hear what impressed Shostakovich, not least some piquant touches of orchestration. This is altogether a very attractive symphony of remarkable directness.
The Seventh Symphony of 1964 (dedicated to Rudolf Barshai) is one of several string symphonies Weinberg composed, though here a harpsichord is added. There are five movements playing without a break. How many symphonies open with unaccompanied harpsichord? This one does, but in fact the instrument plays a generally discreet rather than ostentatious role throughout the work. It is employed sparingly - indeed not at all during the third and fourth movements - often reflecting, or supporting in concerto grosso style.
Although 24 years separate the Seventh Symphony from the First, Weinberg's lyrical neo-classicism is still obvious. The five movements play without a break, the first being an initially serene Adagio sostenuto which increases in intensity, returns to the harpsichord solo, then leads to an Allegro - Adagio sostenuto. Derived frommaterial in the opening movement, the begins with a theme of initially narrow compasswhich soon opens out. This develops into a movement which ranges widely in mood - from skittish to more earnest and purposeful. The Gothenburg players deliver this with considerable impact. The ending is calm, returning to the symphony's opening harpsichord solo.
A relaxed Andante follows, its lack of urgency providing a foil for the short but intense fourth movement, another Adagio sostenuto. The final movement begins wittily with quick repeated notes on the harpsichord before Weinberg further exercises the high-spirited, “unbuttoned”, humorous and unpredictable aspects of his musical character. The calm ending - another Adagio sostenuto - incorporates a final recall of the harpsichord solo which began the symphony.
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra plays with conviction and fine ensemble. Admittedly, the occasional astronomically high violin writing does cause a little insecurity, but many orchestras outside the world's top dozen would be no less taxed. Dedicatee Barshai's own 1967 recording of the 7th Symphony (in inferior sound) is irreplaceable, but Svedlund has made previous Weinberg recordings and demonstrates considerable authority.
This excellently recorded disc presents a good introduction for those unfamiliar with any of Weinberg's large output. I urge them to sample this music, which I found both immediately arresting and increasingly rewarding on repetition.
see also review by Rob Barnett
For the little Weinberg which is presently available one has largely to thank Chandos and hope that they persist.