Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony No. 6 for boys’ choir and orchestra, Op. 79 (1962-63) [44:11]
Sinfonietta No. 1 in D minor, Op. 41 (1948) [22:47]
Vienna Boys Choir, Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Fedoseyev (No. 6); Symphony Orchestra Vorarlberg/Gérard Korsten
rec. live, Festival Theatre, Bregenz, Austria, 1 August 2010 (symphony); 15 August 2010 (Sinfonietta)
No sung texts provided
Weinberg Edition - Volume 1
NEOS 11125 [66:59]

It is good to see the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg getting attention in both the concert hall and the recording studio. The Bregenz Festival 2010 took the form of a ‘Weinberg Retrospective’ and gave the stage première of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera The Passenger directed by David Pountney; the festival’s music director. Also given at Bregenz was the Western première of Weinberg’s Gogol opera The Portrait (1980) directed by John Fulljames. As the festival’s featured composer a number of other Weinberg scores were performed including these two orchestral works. It is good to see that Weinberg is now being considered as more than a mere footnote in a Shostakovich biography. I noted that Pountney described Weinberg as the “third man” alongside the two great compositional geniuses of the Soviet Union: Prokofiev and Shostakovich. I first came across Weinberg’s fascinating and accessible music in early 2011 when I was sent a review copy of his Piano Trio, Op.24 (1945). I recall in the booklet notes for the Con brio label that music writer David Berg described Weinberg’s score as a “wartime masterpiece”. A highly productive composer Weinberg wrote in most genres including twenty-two symphonies; seven operas; seventeen string quartets; numerous concertante scores; a large number of film scores and other works.

Whilst not making any outlandish claims for Weinberg’s greatness I asked myself why this splendid music was not better known. In the process of doing some research I realised that he is significantly hindered by his mixed classification in the record catalogues and music books. In various reference sources I have seen numerous different spellings of his name. He is mainly referred to as Mieczyslaw Weinberg and also named Moishe Weinberg or Mieczyslaw Wajnberg, Mieczyslaw Vainberg, Moishei Vainberg or Moisey Vaynberg. In addition I have seen Weinberg described as a ‘Soviet composer’ and also a ‘Polish composer’; sometimes ‘Polish/Russian composer’ a ‘Jewish/Polish’ and a Russian/Jewish composer. A regular reference source of mine A Guide to 20th Century Composers by Mark Morris (Methuen, 1996) classifies Weinberg as Moishei Vainberg a composer from the Russian Republic and the former Soviet Union. In view of this confusion it is no wonder that the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has found it difficult to gain a foothold in the repertoire.

Weinberg’s immediate family as Polish Jews perished during the Nazi Holocaust in a Warsaw ghetto. Precariously having to keep one step ahead of his oppressors Weinberg constantly had to uproot. When the Nazi’s invaded Poland in 1939 he fled to the Soviet Union; having originally wanted to settle in America. In 1943 at the behest of his friend Shostakovich he ended up in Moscow. Exile was both a curse and a blessing for Weinberg. On the one hand, as a Polish Jew, it saved him from being murdered by the Germans, but on the other hand it drove him into Stalin’s regime. In fact, Weinberg’s father-in-law became a victim of the Stalin dictatorship in 1948. Because he was Jewish Weinberg was himself arrested in 1953 and imprisoned but released after Stalin’s death becoming successfully ‘rehabilitated’ within the doctrine of the Soviet political system.

Composed in 1962-63 the Symphony No. 6, is here conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. From 1997 to 2004 Fedoseyev was principal conductor of the orchestra. Cast in five movements the score commences with an Adagio sostenuto. A doleful horn sets the yearning nostalgic tone. There is an uneasy tension that features the violins playing a simple theme, of an almost child-like quality, which is first heard at 0:43 and repeated relentlessly throughout. Developing to a near fever pitch the music easily evokes a picture of terrifying events. A much calmer section appears yet tension is never far away. Noticeable is an eerie flute solo followed the horn caught in a bewildering mood over low dark strings. Fedoseyev creates a threatening quality with the percussion-fuelled orchestral sound at 10:10 sending out shock waves. Finally the menace in the music is allowed to decay almost to nothing. Marked Allegretto the second movement uses a text to Lev Kvitko’s poem The Little Fiddle commencing with the words ‘I’ve broken a little box’. Jewish writer Lev Kvitko was shot by the Soviet secret police in 1952 during the Stalinist ‘purges’. The writing reveals a buoyant mood with an underlying sense of dark foreboding. A plaintive solo violin adds to the tension. The movement ends with a martial trumpet over drum-rolls, like a sinister reveille, before Fedoseyev directs the wonderful final orchestral outburst. In the instrumental only central movement - a boisterous Allegro molto - music of an almost barbaric folkish quality makes a significant impact with Fedoseyev propelling the music strongly forward. Powerful brass and percussion are highly prominent as is the strong influence of Jewish music. At times the sound-world of Shostakovich was also noticeable. The fourth movement Largo continues with even more shattering and strident writing before the choir enters singing the moving poem titled ‘A ditch is dug in red clay’ by Shmuel Halkin (Samuil Galkin) a text that concerns the mass murder of Kiev’s Jews by the Nazis. A Jewish poet, Halkin spent many years exiled in Siberia and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities. Providing welcome relief from the tension the movement closes on a peaceful note as if all the energy has been expelled. In the finale (Andantino) Weinberg uses a verse titled Sleep People by Soviet author Mikhail Lukonin that would have been highly amenable to the Soviet regime ‘Sleep peacefully, oh, people’. Here the dream of a new dawn breaks as Weinberg evokes a brighter more optimistic world where there is less tension and anger; without having to keep looking over the shoulder any more. In fact the final verse of Lukonin’s text speaks of a near perfect Communist world “Rest people. The sun will rise and violins will sing of peace on earth.” From 6:22-8:24 the solo violin sounds less forlorn, resilience becoming dominant. The Vienna horns playing over dark strings briefly recall the music of Shostakovich.

Completed in 1948 the four movement Sinfonietta No. 1 in D minor, Op. 41 was premièred the same year by the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nathan Rakhlin. On this Neos disc the Symphony Orchestra Vorarlberg from Western Austria are conducted by their principal conductor Gérard Korsten. Somewhat militaristic and often bombastic in character the opening Allegro risoluto is suffused with Slavic folk rhythms to which is added a touch of Middle Eastern seasoning. Commencing with a significant horn solo over an underlay of gentle strings the Lento has many attractive qualities. I can detect a hint of Jewish Klezmer. Right from the opening measures the sound of the Klezmer is even more evident in the brief Allegretto. Light, bright and lithe the final Vivace is so convincingly played by the Vorarlberg players and is taken by Korsten at near breakneck speed. With repetitive rhythms the writing evokes a wild and frenzied folk dance. The final pages offer a strong sense of drama with the now familiar militaristic quality.

There’s a degree of audience noise in both recordings but I didn’t find it too off-putting. Otherwise things are clear and well balanced. Including a short foreword by the Bregenz Festival’s artistic director David Pountney the booklet notes are reasonably informative. No music texts for the Symphony No.6 are included with the Neos release which is a disappointing situation and sadly one all too common these days. I have seen an English translation of the poignant texts on a vinyl Melodiya release and undoubtedly Weinberg took the utmost care in choosing appropriate verses to set. Yet here the listener is not permitted to understand the meaning of what is being expressed. As it is too late for inclusion in the booklet it would be good if the record label could make these highly evocative texts with translations available on their website.

The thrill of the live performance adds to the attraction of these splendidly played and decently recorded scores. This Neos release is an ideal starting place for anyone wanting to explore Weinberg’s music.

Michael Cookson

An ideal starting place for anyone wanting to explore Weinberg’s music.

Reviews of other releases in this series