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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Chamber Symphony No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 151 (1990) [32:56]
Chamber Symphony No. 4 in B major, Op. 153 (1992) [32:34]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
rec. Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden, 2014
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download

Chandos takes a side-step from its project, shared with Naxos, to record all the symphonies of this increasingly appreciated Soviet composer. In reality, these chamber symphonies are symphonies as well; it’s just that they happen to be written for a smaller orchestra, scoring that they share with Symphonies 2, 7 and 10.

Chamber Symphony 3, for strings only, is like its two predecessors, based on one of Weinberg’s string quartets, in this case, Number 5. The first three movements use music from the quartet, though not simply as transcriptions. This distinguishes this work from the earlier chamber symphonies which were essentially just arrangements of the quartets. The first movement is slow and brings Mahler to mind, without reaching or indeed striving for that level of passion. The only truly fast music is to be found in the second movement (Allegro molto) and it is archetypal Weinberg ... and Shostakovich. It runs without pause into the Adagio, which strikes me as very Russian. It is both more intense and more soulful than the opening movement. The final Andantino is somewhat of a mournful dance, with plucked lower strings below a hesitant waltz. This wanders in a seemingly random fashion, and rarely rises above piano across its ten minutes. There is something of a sense of aimless drifting, which may be more due to the performance than the music.

Chamber Symphony 4 also quotes from other Weinberg works, but in this case operas and song cycles, rather than string quartets. It is also the last completed work by the composer. There is a Symphony 22, which remained unorchestrated on his death – it will be interesting to see whether the Chandos/Naxos project includes a completion of it. This is the second time that the conductor has recorded this work — originally on Olympia, and reissued on Alto – review. It is written in a single movement, though in four sections and tracked accordingly here. It includes what I suspect is a unique direction for the instrumentation: triangle obbligato. The aforesaid instrument has only four notes in the entire work, all in the last section.

The work begins with a chorale-like melody, and after a few minutes, the clarinet enters, with a klezmer-style song, adapted from a theme from his Seventeenth Symphony. The allegro molto crashes through the stillness, with the clarinet in mocking mode. The third section is sad, gentle and beautiful, with a haunting part for the clarinet. It brought to mind some of the slow music from Shostakovich’s Symphony 11, which for me, is high praise indeed. The finale, which begins with a playful andantino, contains some of the most beautiful music Weinberg ever wrote — or at least that I have heard. It finishes with the clarinet delving very low down, and then fades slowly away into stillness. It is a very fine piece of music.

The Helsingborg orchestra under Thord Svedlund must have Weinberg in their veins now, with a number of recordings under their belt. The playing is very accomplished, though I wonder whether a little more bite, even harshness, might suit the music better in some places. Certainly Weinberg’s level of acerbity is much less than Shostakovich, but here perhaps it has been buffed back too far. I listened, through the Naxos Music Library, to a 1997 Claves recording with the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra (reviewed here), and without doubt, the string sound there was more biting and less refined. However, the most striking difference was speed. The Kremliners are 3-4 minutes quicker in each work, and in Number 3, the outer movements, which run to more than 10 minutes on the Chandos recording, are done in around 8. It does make a difference, making the final movement of Number 3, for example, progress rather than meander. The clarinet in Number 4 is far more effective in the allegro, placed further forward, so that its shrill mocking tone is much more discomforting.

These two works are very enjoyable, and would be a good entrée into the Weinberg world, but I’m disappointed to conclude that there are better versions.

David Barker

Weinberg review index