RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Piano Works: Children’s Notebooks 1-3 opp.16, 19, 23 [45:47] (1. Larghetto [1:23]; 2. Allegro [1:29]; 3. Moderato maestoso [2:14]; 4. Tempo di valse [1:38]; 5. Allegretto [1:44]; 6. Presto [0:55]; 7. Andante tranquillo [2:35]; 8. Larghetto [1:34]; 9. Largo [4:25]; 10. Allegretto [1:37]; 11. Moderato [1:36]; 12. Lento [3:43]; 13. Allegro [1:27]; 14. Andantino [1:30]; 15. Marziale lugubre [3:19]; 16. Andante [2:10]; 17. Allegro marcato [1:28]; 18. Allegro comodo [1:09]; 19. Moderato [1:55]; 20. Prestissimo [1:05]; 21. Allegro quasi andantino [2:29]; 22. Lento funebre [3:29]; 23 Andantino semplice [1:53])
Sonata No.1 op.5 (24. Adagio [6:18]; 25. Allegretto [2:21]; 26. Andantino [2:58]; 27. Allegro molto [3:18])
Elisaveta Blumina (piano)
rec. Bayerischer Rundfunk Studio No.2, Munich, Germany, 8-21 November 2008. DDD
CPO 777 517-2 [60:54]
At long last the name of Mieczysław (Mosei/Moishe) Weinberg is becoming better known. It is claimed he was an epigone of Shostakovich, implying that Weinberg was simply a poorer example of the great composer. I am certainly not alone in completely refuting this ill-judged, disparaging and totally incorrect allegation. It is, however, perfectly true to say that as friends - Shostakovich and Weinberg even lived in the same apartment block in Moscow - they both had a not inconsiderable influence on each other. Various themes of each of them turn up in the other’s works and these “borrowings” simply underline the respect they had for each other. Shostakovich thought highly of Weinberg’s compositions and became a champion and mentor of his younger friend, even risking arrest (and worse) in writing to Stalin and Beria to protest at Weinberg’s arrest over trumped-up charges of being connected with the desire to set up an independent Jewish State in the Crimea and to be involved - through his wife’s relations - with the infamous alleged “Doctors’ plot” to kill Stalin. At times it is easy to mistake Weinberg’s writing for that of Shostakovich – just listen to tracks 2, 4, 14 and 17 of the Children’s Notebooks and to track 25 from the Piano Sonata, but I would suggest that what one recognises in them are Russian, Polish and, perhaps above all, Jewish themes. It was Weinberg who was Jewish, not Shostakovich, though Shostakovich always identified with the plight of Russian Jews and many of his works use Jewish folk-songs and melodies. If we had always been as familiar with Weinberg’s output as we have been with that of Shostakovich then, who knows, we might be comparing them the other way round!
He once wrote: "Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century." In this he was also similar to Shostakovich as a kind of self-appointed, not to say driven, musical conscience. It is ironic that while the Soviet authorities did their utmost to direct composers to write music that spoke directly to the people - and, of course lauding the achievements of the Soviet people - that the music of these two composers, and plenty of others, did speak directly to the audiences though not always the way the authorities had in mind. Even coded references were picked up by listeners, for example the portrayal of Stalin in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Weinberg was unfortunately well qualified to say that he was dictated by his fate and that of his relatives to write the music he did as both his grandfather and great-grandfather were murdered in pogroms in Moldavia in the early 20th century. His parents and sister died in camps near Warsaw during the second world war. He was imprisoned as mentioned above on completely ridiculous charges and Shostakovich not only wrote to Stalin in support but he and his wife Nina agreed to act as powers of attorney should Weinberg’s wife also be arrested - she was the daughter of the actor and theatre director Solomon Mikhoels who was murdered by the Cheka in 1948 - and to take in their young daughter. Weinberg was, in common with the concept of “the wandering Jew”, someone whose family had been obliged to move from their obviously German original home to Moldavia and later, due to the pogroms there to Warsaw. From there Weinberg as a 20 year old escaped the Nazis by going to Minsk and then, yet again he was obliged to flee the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, this time to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. His works total over 150, including 7 operas, 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, scores for 65 films and over 150 songs. His works have suffered firstly from suppression at times, to the difficulty of Soviet music being heard in the west and, latterly with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Now there is the opportunity to “discover” him and these works will, I’m sure aid that process. There are rich rewards indeed to those who come to his works anew. My previous knowledge was based solely on Kogan’s recording of the violin concerto, op. 67 and his Symphony No.4, op.61 both with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra on HMV Melodiya ASD 2755. The violin concerto is also available on Naxos and there are over 40 recordings listed on Amazon’s website. Another useful source of available recordings is to be found here.
Anyone who is a devotee of Shostakovich, as I am, will immediately identify with these works, will understand the musical references and be thrilled with the boundless enthusiasm and melodic invention encapsulated in this music. Entitled Children’s Notebooks and, so the liner-notes say, dedicated to his 12 year old daughter Viktoria, (the dedication must have come later as they were published in 1947 when Weinberg was only 28!), these pieces grow in complexity. They would be very challenging for a young pianist to pull off with conviction since there are important elements of pace, phrasing and contrasting volume between powerfully loud passages and almost whispered notes that serve to delight the ear; just try track 15 to hear what I mean – it is wonderfully simple and simply wonderful. The Children’s Notebooks as the liner-notes explain “represent what Shostakovich described as laughing with tears in Jewish music. The symbiosis of carefree joy and grief account for the liveliness of Jewish music, a tradition that Shostakovich discovered for himself and in which Weinberg had grown up”. Try listening to Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry or his Piano Trio No.2 to hear the Jewish Folk references that can be heard in these piano pieces. During this review I have listened to the disc at least eight times and often I simply replayed it immediately it had finished I have never tired of it but have discovered more about the pieces each time. The Piano Sonata, which dates from 1940, is no less thrilling and shows how much promise there was in one of only 20 years old – it is a really accomplished work. I hadn’t come across Elizaveta Blumina before but she’s yet another product of the continuing tradition of the Russian Piano School. Long may it continue for she approaches this music with great understanding and appreciation and it makes for a wonderfully illuminating experience.
Blumina approaches this music with great understanding and appreciation and it makes for a wonderfully illuminating experience.