It will not go unnoticed by any regular readers of my reviews that I am a champion of Weinberg and always put myself forward to review any new CDs of his music. I’m pretty sure that anyone who is a lover of Shostakovich’s music will feel the same about Weinberg’s. There has been plenty of opinion expressed over the years about the similarity between the music of the two composers who became and remained fast friends for over thirty years. Some say that the younger man was a mere musical clone of the older. Others have pointed out the influences that also went the other way. Many, including myself, are not interested in such unhelpful nitpicking, for the music itself is enough of an advocate for both to render such discussion irrelevant and unworthy. In any case it is not just that the music is similar to that of Shostakovich but that both composers’ music was very Russian. Few music-lovers would fail to identify the music as coming from that country; this despite Weinberg’s Polish/Jewish origins. That said, it is true that sometimes it is difficult to tell the two apart since they both used a similar musical language but if the listener enjoys that language then ‘it’s all good’.
The Twelfth Symphony which was Weinberg’s first full orchestral score for 14 years was written in 1976 as a musical tribute to his friend and mentor who had died the previous August. As such it is a really full-blooded work, redolent of his friend’s style as well as his own. It includes subtle references to Shostakovich’s DSCH motif which the older man often used. The opening movement begins with a powerfully stated theme that lasts for some three minutes before subsiding into a gentler second subject from hushed strings later joined by woodwind. These two themes jockey for superiority for much of the movement each often backed up by angry blasts from the brass. It may be too much to read into this Shostakovich’s own personal battle with the Soviet State. He composed music that was broadly in keeping with the edicts to produce music that was acceptable and understandable to ‘Soviet man’ while keeping his writing personal with hidden messages which those in the know easily managed to decode. It would certainly make sense in a work that is a tribute to someone who meant so much to Weinberg. If so it is also easy to see why the movement ends in such an outpouring of anguish and grief, of Mahlerian proportions as Richard Whitehouse describes it — Mahler was a particular favourite of Shostakovich.
The second movement employs several devices often found in Shostakovich’s own works, including blasts from horns and trumpets against a background of strident strings. Each section confronts the other in a mocking, teasing way and finally all rush headlong to a flourishing conclusion.
The third movement opens gently with the upper strings joined later by the lower strings carving out a reflective melody before woodwind enter to add colour to the proceedings. The overall atmosphere is one of concerned anxiety which eventually rises in volume and the timpani comes in to punctuate the mood. The final section is reached via a solo bassoon, lower woodwind, flute and upper strings that lead to a more expansive section which exchanges anxiety for sadness. The movement comes to a whispered end and immediately segues into the final movement. This is heralded by marimba alongside the closing notes of the previous movement. The marimba was another favourite instrument of Shostakovich. The strings, woodwind and brass turn the wistful opening into a much more animated affair with tension from the various sections. The music slowly builds in volume and intensity with a particularly effective section played in angular fashion. All smooth liaison is removed before order is restored and a peaceful section dominates. The marimba is heard again like an unearthly vision that leads into a final section prefaced by flute and horn joined later by harp and celesta. There are more Shostakovichian allusions, together with a solo cello suggesting a calm resolution. This is only disturbed in the closing notes by a surge from lower strings as if to try to prevent such a close.
This symphony is an incredibly deep and heartfelt tribute to Weinberg’s best friend and great champion, a man who risked the wrath of the State by writing to both Stalin and Beria when Weinberg was arrested and jailed at the time of ‘the Doctors’ plot’. It is also a wonderfully atmospheric symphony that is powerful as well as lyrical and is brimming with ideas. It adds to the argument that Weinberg is one of the major composers of the twentieth century. His huge output includes some extremely important works that can be compared favourably with any other major figure from his era.
Despite composing music in so many genres Weinberg wrote little ballet music. This is both a surprise and a shame when you hear how effective he was when he did. The music from his ballet The Golden Key was turned into four suites for concert performance and it is the fourth that is presented here. Immediately you can hear shades of Shostakovich in the rather sardonic opening representing the ballet’s hero Burratino. A wonderfully evocative Elegy follows whose core is a very memorable melody. A cheeky Dance of Artemon using bassoon comes next and several other dances follow, all of them highly effective with Dance of the Cat and the Fox a particular case in point. A note of menace is introduced in Dance of Shushera the Rat with a pendulous theme from woodwind and strings punctuated by brass. The perky The Lesson has all the hallmarks of knockabout burlesque and the final piece, The Pursuit with both dance and chase involved, ends energetically accompanied by brass and percussion putting a satisfactory musical full stop to a ballet that must be fun to watch, especially for children.
The St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra which, from its creation in 1967 until 1985, was known by the strange title of the Orchestra of Ancient and Modern Music still continues the tradition of playing music from, as the brochure puts it, “every epoch, genre and style”. Vladimir Lande has been its principal guest conductor since 2008. It plays everything here with commitment and a keen ear for detail, delivering a powerful and convincing performance of the symphony and a thoroughly enjoyable one of the ballet suite.
And another review
In a recent review I commented on the proliferation of Weinberg recordings since his death in 1996. This new disc makes 14 of his 20 numbered symphonies available at this time as well as a second recording of his Suite No. 4 from the ballet The Golden Key. If he was still with us the composer could have no complaint about his representation on disc.
Although The Golden Key suites were published in 1964, the ballet itself was written in the mid-’fifties and first performed in 1962. The story is taken from Alexi Tolstoy’s re-working of Pinocchio and remains extremely popular in Russia. Unfortunately the notes for this disc contain no synopsis of the events of the ballet. The music itself is somewhat typical of Soviet ballet music of the non-epic type, with a large satirical element. In spite of this the section that most impressed me was the Elegy with its beautiful oboe solo. More amusingly, in the Dance of the Cricket Weinberg ably uses a repeated figure to portray the title character and in The Cat and the Fox he makes it impossible to tell who is leading. In the section titled The Lesson we can almost see the Teacher chasing Burattino (the Pinocchio character) while the finale is a sort of Soviet Keystone Cops sequence ending in satirical triumph.
The Symphony No. 12 was Weinberg’s first symphony in fourteen years written for full orchestra - and without a chorus. It is his memorial to Shostakovich, his friend, mentor and supporter of over thirty years. Two things are immediately apparent in this work - Weinberg’s complete sincerity of utterance and the feeling of anguish found throughout. This is not so much an elegy for Shostakovich as an outpouring of grief over the loss of a close friend.
The 12th Symphony’s opening allegro is very spacious but immediately calls us to attention with a peremptory main theme in the strings - indeed, the symphony relies to a great degree on the string section. The far-away sounding second theme is also on the (high) strings and is ably developed with undercurrents of the main theme in low brass. When the main theme returns it is fragmented and dissonant - leading to a mezzo-forte climax that suddenly dies away. All is written with greatest conviction.
Strings also predominate in the unstoppable scherzo, with shrill commentary from the woodwinds. The intensity of the music ebbs and flows but the forward motion never stops. At the end the movement looks to be another fading away as in the first movement but Weinberg finishes with sudden violence.
One might expect the slow movement to be elegiac in tone, as in many symphonies, but the main feeling here is of bleakness. A recurrent figure in the winds is matched by high string tone, utilized with great skill, until the movement dies away in sadness with the finale immediately following. Here the main theme is announced on the marimba and taken up by various parts of the orchestra in succession. This generates a rather spectral dance with beautiful accompaniment in the woodwinds. The marimba returns and the music seems to be seeking a peaceful resolution but the end brings little sense of finality.
Maxim Shostakovich conducted the world premiere of the 12th Symphony and later recorded it, as did Vladimir Fedoseyev. Neither of these recordings is now generally available but Vladimir Lande ably supplies the deficiency with this recording. He has great rapport with the orchestra and has a complete understanding the character of Weinberg’s music (see his previous recordings of Symphonies No. 6 and No. 19 (see links 1, 2). He also successfully compensates for the work’s major drawback - a certain lack of emotional contrast between movements. The St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra matches Lande in commitment to the music and ably acquits itself. Unfortunately the recording quality does not match that of the performances. The St. Catherine Lutheran Church in Petersburg is usually a serviceable recording venue but on this disc the sound is blunt if not dull and causes some of the emotional impact to be lost. This is also true in terms of the humour found in The Golden Key music, although here there is competition in Thord Svedlund’s recording on Chandos (see link). Svedlund has an equal facility with Weinberg’s music and is given much better engineering by Chandos. However, Lande’s disc is a must as the only generally available recording of the 12th and as a fine performance in its own right.
Symphony No. 12 In Memoriam D. Shostakovich (1976) [75:40]
1) Allegro moderato [20:40]
2) Allegretto [8:20]
3) Adagio [11:06]
4) Allegro [17:13]
The Golden Key – Ballet Suite No. 4 (1954-55) [18:21]
5) I. Burattino's Dance with the Key [2:13]
6) II. Elegy [3:13]
7) III. Dance of Artemon [1:13]
8) IV. Dance of the Cricket [0:54]
9) V. Dance of the Cat and the Fox [1:35]
10) VI. Dance of Shushera the Rat [1:41]
11) VII. The Lesson [2:48]
12) VIII. The Pursuit [4:43]
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~~ Byzantion