RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony No 20, Op 150 (1988) [39:47]
Cello Concerto, Op 92 (1948) [31:03]
Claes Gunnarsson (cello)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
rec. 11-13 August (symphony) and 22-24 August (concerto) 2011, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5107 [70:50]
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 cello concerto.
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 ending.
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.
At last! A new recording of one of my favorite cello concertos. Drop everything and listen to this.