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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony no.19, op.142, The Bright May (1985) [34:04]
The Banners of Peace, op.143 (1985) [21:32]
St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
rec. St Catherine Lutheran Church, St Petersburg, 28-30 April 2011. DDD
NAXOS 8.572752 [55:36]

This disc is an almost immediate follow-up by Naxos and Vladimir Lande to their recording of Weinberg's epic and unusual Symphony no.6 - see review. That was the label's first recording of a Weinberg symphony, an oddly tardy response from Naxos to the ongoing upswing in Weinberg's reputation. By contrast, Chandos began their own Weinberg symphony edition a decade ago, the first three volumes recorded by National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice (NPRSOK) under Gabriel Chmura, the next three by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Thord Svedlund. The latest was released earlier this year (CHSA 5107). All discs have been very well received, both in terms of performances and with regard to Weinberg's thrillingly original music. Naxos have the price advantage - typically 50% cheaper - but many of the Chandos discs are in Super Audio quality. Either way, Naxos founder Klaus Heymann has said that the two labels are effectively sharing the workload initially, towards a bipartisan recording of Weinberg's complete Symphonies - of which there are, incidentally, 21 complete, plus one unfinished fragment (no.22), four Chamber Symphonies and two Sinfoniettas.
Vladimir Lande has described Weinberg's music as being "like a giant Christmas present that's never been unwrapped. You know, right under the tree, a huge box, containing twenty-two symphonies and more - much of which has never been performed before". A populistic way of putting it, for sure, but it gets across the point that Weinberg still trails a long way behind his friend Shostakovich in reputation and renown - quite undeservedly.
The Nineteenth Symphony is certainly a lot more exciting than annotator Richard Whitehouse paints it: "Solo horn and strings then converse resignedly over a gentle harp ostinato with whimsical asides from flutes, a further climax being swiftly curtailed to leave solo clarinet with limpid phrases which gradually overcome any remaining tension as solo horn and piccolo continue against gently capricious strings." For a long time it was a critical shibboleth that Weinberg's symphonic music was a pale imitation of that of Shostakovich, especially as Weinberg was always the more conservative. He is perhaps more reminiscent of the older Prokofiev in fact, and as a consequence his symphonies tend to be more lyrical, less strident, more immediately audience-friendly than those by Shostakovich. That is certainly the case with the very attractively scored and structured Nineteenth, which celebrates the end of a war in emotionally ambiguous terms, the score bearing a quotation from a poem - 'Victory is at our door" - by Anna Akhmatova.
The symphonic poem The Banners of Peace was written straight after the Nineteenth Symphony in 1985. The fact that it was dedicated to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party provides some explanation as to the uplifting, almost patriotic nature of the music. The incorporation of fragments of revolutionary songs does not, in Whitehouse's opinion, constitute propagandisation. However, in post-Stalinist USSR Weinberg grew into a respected and decorated figure, and his Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Symphonies seem pretty clear statements of national identity and belief. Propaganda is everywhere in music, and need not be a dirty word!
The works are decently performed by the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, though some of the players seem slightly out of sorts by comparison with the previous volume. In a similar way, sound quality is fairly good, though not perfect: recorded in Russia, some clarity and depth were evidently lost in translation. On the other hand, audio is an improvement on the only other recordings to date, by the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev - still a great Weinberg champion - for Olympia in the 1980s (OCD 590, OCD 591).
Those who find their appetites whetted by what they hear here need not chafe - some of Weinberg's chamber music has also recently become available on Naxos: three volumes of Cello Sonatas (8.570333, 8.572280, 8.572281). Furthermore, three volumes of what is being billed as Weinberg's complete piano music have been issued on HNH/Naxos's Grand Piano label in its debut year, performed by Allison Brewster Franzetti (GP 603, 607, 610).
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see also review by Steve Arloff