I was led to Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s solo cello music after encountering his Cello Concerto, an almost unbelievably beautiful work of endless melody and haunting emotional impact. The opening of the concerto, which must look laughably simple on paper, becomes, in Mstislav Rostropovich’s hands on a Brilliant Classics re-issue, an overpowering experience – see also Northern Flowers.
These twenty-four preludes for solo cello are not like that. They are austere, enigmatic, sometimes grim, and always influenced by Shostakovich. To the extent that they are not as instantly appealing, and do not linger ghost-like in the memory for days after a listen, the preludes are a disappointment after the concerto; on their own, though, they make a fascinating cycle.
The first opens with a simple string of ascending octaves which then spins about in an episode Josef Feigelson, in his booklet notes, equates with the chaos of the creation in Genesis. The effect is austere, though No 2 somewhat counteracts this with a folk dance episode which has been, somehow, turned upside-down and made unfamiliar. No 3 introduces the influences of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in a minute-long miniature. No 7 is ghostly in its muted effects, No 10 sounds a bit like a stuck record, No 13 is a soft pizzicato scherzo suggesting balalaikas or dulcimers, and No 21 incorporates extensive quotations of Shostakovich’s most famous cello works - particularly Concerto No 1’s opening theme, repeated insistently.
There is a certain monotony to the cycle as a whole, lacking as it does emotional variety. Nearly all the works derive from the same mood, and some preludes, like No 9, are repetitious even by themselves. When Nos 11 and 12 arrive, they feel like a new break simply because they are quiet rather than frenetic. Indeed, No 12 is my favorite prelude of the whole set, hinting as it does at a pocket of consoling beauty just around the corner.
Immediately after hearing the rather draining preludes, the Solo Cello Sonata No 1 can sound like more of the same. It is not, though. Its opening theme immediately invokes, for me, the sound-world of jazz, albeit with a dark Russian twist. A bluesy feel returns at the end of the movement, and is followed by an allegretto that stands more firmly in the neo-classical tradition (though it uses the same theme!). The final movement includes a series of virtuosic hurdles and brings the disc to a comparatively dramatic close.
Feigelson, in a recording originally made for Olympia in 1996, gives these works as impassioned an advocacy as can be hoped for. His new booklet note is fascinating. But for a newcomer to Weinberg’s music, it would clearly be better to start with the Cello Concerto and Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra - more easily available than the concerto, in a good Chandos recording. As an introduction to the composer’s work, this music would be best for the most devoted admirers of frigid Soviet pessimism. For the connoisseur, though, and for the lover of Shostakovich, there is quite a lot to enjoy.