There is no way to prepare the new listener for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s
cello concerto. I cannot describe its emotional tenor: the concerto’s
opening throws aside all pretensions, all formal dress, and
simply exposes its heart. The work’s full power works
upon you within ten seconds.
I cannot describe its structure adequately except to say that
it is “circular”. That is, we begin in one place
and meditate on it without formal development until we reach
another - the klezmer-influenced second movement. This again
is elaborated without formal complications and dissolved into
the next part, a vigorous Caucasian folk-dance which evokes
Khachaturian and feels like a finale. This, too, gives way,
and the ensuing cadenza is the first time we hear themes from
the concerto in interplay. Then we finally get a finale - which
really brings us full circle, back to where we started.
I cannot describe my esteem of this concerto without sounding
like a fool. I love it. I’ve never heard anything else
by Weinberg that even comes close, although his piano quintet
is fantastic. Then again, I’ve hardly heard anything by
anybody that compares to this. Okay, I’ll sound
like a fool: after the Dvořák, this is my favorite
What makes me feel silly saying all this is that the piece itself
lacks all such air or formalities. It does not require critical
texts, doesn’t need anyone to sing its praises. All it
asks is that you listen to it, and then you will understand.
So why are there so few recordings of Weinberg’s cello
concerto? There lies a mystery. Aside from a disc on Northern
Flowers (my colleague Jonathan Woolf called the reading “heavy”), Claes Gunnarsson, the very good cellist here,
is up against only one formidable opponent: dedicatee Mstislav
Rostropovich, in a live broadcast from February 1964 which can
be heard on Brilliant Classics’ ‘Historic Russian
Archives’ series. Gunnarsson doesn’t quite make
my jaw hit the floor in the opening adagio - Rostropovich is
peerless at the simple heart-shredding melancholy of that moment
- but he and conductor Thord Svedlund collaborate on a third
movement which is both exciting and very clear, very musical.
Rostropovich and Gennady Rozhdestvensky blaze through the folk
sections at an unseemly pace. Moreover, Gunnarsson is so good
that this performance will be mandatory for much more than just
the extraordinary sound quality.
The Symphony No 20 is a wholly different matter. If the concerto
is Weinberg at his most direct, most soulful, most astonishing,
the symphony is the composer at his most cryptic and bitter.
His rather dour reputation in the west is the product of that
bitter tendency, which unfortunately also colours most of his
solo cello music (review, review). The symphony, dating from 1988 when the composer
was nearing age 70, cocoons itself in that moroseness and, as
the booklet gently says, is “exceptionally hard to fathom”.
The first movement is an adagio which is not all that depressing,
really, but also quite monotonous; imagine the opening of Shostakovich’s
Sixth, but without any memorable melodic material and with maybe
only one climax. It does build impressively albeit mysteriously
over its span. The second-movement scherzo is more austere,
and represents no obvious contrast except in tempo - although
there is a good bit for muted trumpet and winds. Then there’s
an intermezzo which again feels foreign and aloof, propelled
by bounding bass pizzicatos which are simultaneously jaunty
and forbidding. The second scherzo does us the favor of creating
a melodic hook and sticking to a consistent, exciting mood with
lots of added percussion. It’s absolutely fantastic. The
lento finale allows some light through the clouds at long last,
and permits itself more lyricism than we’d heard previously.
It also features a dark flute solo accompanied by piano and
bass clarinet, but these come on the way to a surprisingly positive
The Symphony No 20 is hard to make out, then, but it’s
not exactly a painful experience either. The fourth movement
is terrific, and the others, while forbidding, have their moments.
I am a little doubtful about whether the work hangs together
coherently, and I think many listeners will detect the scent
of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in certain passages. There will
be no such thing in the cello concerto, for no shadows hang
over that work. It is entirely Weinberg’s, and it is a
masterpiece. It deserves to be a mainstay of every cellist’s
repertoire, alongside Dvorák, Elgar, and Shostakovich,
and if in a decade or two it has received the attention it deserves,
we will have Chandos and soloist Claes Gunnarsson to thank.