Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartets - Volume 5
String Quartet No. 1 Op. 2/141 (1937 and 1985) [20.56]
Aria Op. 9 (1942) [4.25]; Capriccio Op. 11 (1943) [4.25]
String Quartet No. 3 in D minor Op.. 14 (1943) [20.42]
String Quartet No. 10 Op. 85 in A minor (1964) [24.07]
Quatuor Danel
rec. Studio Stolbergenstrasse, Cologne, June 2007, December 2008, February 2009
CPO 777 566-2 [77.18]
For most composers a 1st String Quartet is a rite of passage into a vast tradition but it is quite common to find that the piece may bear little resemblance to the language and style of later works including other quartets. This is certainly the case with Weinberg’s 1st which although listed as Op. 2 also has the Op. 141 number as he revised it substantially in 1985, forty-eight years after its completion. Nevertheless it remains a curiously eclectic work.
It’s sobering to think that Weinberg could easily have fallen a victim of the holocaust, as did some of his close relations. Being born a Polish Jew in 1919, the same year as the ill-fated Gideon Klein, he could disappeared at any time. Indeed he was arrested in 1953 under Stalin but Shostakovich took a shine to Weinberg’s 1st Symphony and via a well-timed letter of commendation had him released. Before that however Weinberg fled his native country and went into Belarus and later deeper into Russia settling there for the rest of his long life.
Recordings of his music abound at present and quite rightly too. I first came across him only recently with Volume 2 of the Quartets. Here I was much taken with the rather stern Thirteenth Quartet of 1981. It was this work that came to mind whilst hearing the first movement of the 1st. Nevertheless this older movement is a rather overwrought as David Fanning’s excellent liner-notes tell us. Its intense chromaticisms do rather pall after five minutes or so. I was reminded of Szymanowski at times and even of Shostakovich. However the muted second movement is hauntingly memorable. One can see why the composer persisted with revisions to this youthful piece - after all he was only 18 when he originally finished it. The finale is different again being much easier to assimilate, rather dance-like and what Fanning calls “the most characteristic of the three” - quite stylistically contrasted. It even establishes a sort of C major for a great deal of its course.
From just a few years later come the two enchanting miniatures, which end the CD. Written during the 2nd World War, whilst the composer was residing in Tashkent, the Aria is a warm-hearted yet nostalgic Larghetto with a memorable melody accompanied by throbbing chords. The Capriccio, marked Scherzando con grazia e rubato, is basically a waltz but with a slightly ghostly middle section which repeats later in 5/8 even 5/16 time. It reminded me of a Bartók dance movement and is perhaps equally ethnically inspired.
I’m led to believe that a similar light-hearted view of life is be heard in the 2nd Quartet of 1943 but this has not as yet emerged in this CPO series of all 17 Quartets. The 3rd String Quartet reverts, at least at first, to the intensity of the 1st but is more focused harmonically and indeed contrapuntally. Fanning talks of the ‘wiry intensity’ of the first movement. I could also mention the Shostakovich-like desolation of the second movement. The third is a fascinating and evanescent dancing piece which just vanishes into thin air. The whole work, which plays without a break, is well worth getting to know. It represents this prolific composer’s advertising of his more mature self. I agree with the notes that Britten is even heard from time to time especially in the middle movement and in its 5/4 metre.
By 1964 Weinberg was an establishment figure. At least his achievements were being recognised in his own country. Some have commented that he bowed too low to the Russian authorities of the time. However, he managed to keep space for his own development and views despite the rush of film scores he was expected to churn out. The String Quartet No. 10 is just such a private view. It was completed just a few weeks after Shostakovich’s Tenth and is also in four movements. There the similarities end. Weinberg begins with an intense and moving Adagio and then moves to a fleeting Scherzando marked Allegro. The tonality is never obvious but neither is it bi-tonal or overly chromatic. The ensuing Adagio weighs in at less than three minutes but is weighty and feels imposing and grandiloquent. The Allegretto which ends the work - there are no breaks between movements - begins as a fugue. It is introspective and is the longest of the four. Its second subject is more dance-like with a tune in the viola accompanied by pizzicato violins. These ideas are reflectively intermixed and the music ends thoughtfully.
There is no reason to think that these performances are not ideal. I have not heard these works elsewhere but the Quatuor Danel have recorded all five volumes so far (Vol. 2) so have got to know their Weinberg by now. Each player has impeccable technique and the ensemble is superb and beautifully balanced. The recording allows the music to speak and the performers to be at their best. A good place to start your investigation of a very considerable twentieth century figure.

Gary Higginson
A good place to start your investigation of a very considerable twentieth century figure.