One of my greatest joys these last two years has been the discovery of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. I had come across his name before and had a vinyl disc of his violin concerto which I very much enjoyed but had not explored further. I doubt that there was that much more available 30 years ago; fortunately there is now.
Anyone who rates Shostakovich as I do as one of the supreme artists of the twentieth century but doesn’t yet know Weinberg will think they’ve died and gone to music heaven once they get to know him. It’s almost like discovering a whole new body of Shostakovich’s work that had been lost. This is not to suggest in any way whatsoever that Weinberg was a clone of Shostakovich in the same way as it would be ludicrous to say the reverse. That said, there is a considerable similarity of style that can have you believe that you are listening to one when it is in fact the other. Yes they knew each other. Yes, Shostakovich thought highly of Weinberg and promoted him whenever he could and supported him against the authorities when necessary. Indeed he was instrumental in having Weinberg released from prison where he spent eleven weeks in 1953. Nevertheless there are those critics who hold that these similarities did neither composer any favours. Honest composers write what they have to write, what they are motivated to write. Equally there should be no suggestion that either of them were anything but honest. In any case Weinberg’s influences included the music of Mahler, Prokofiev, Bartók, Miaskovsky. Also Moldavian, Polish, Uzbek, Armenian and Jewish elements can be heard in his music. Indeed since Weinberg was Jewish many have very good reason for believing that it was the two composers’ friendship which resulted in Shostakovich taking such an interest in Jewish music himself and to include it in several of his works. The two composers had their own very individual personalities and their own distinctive musical voices. These happened to coincide in style at times but there are other composers from that part of the world about which the same could also be said.
The fact that there is a lot of ‘cross pollination’ involved is evidenced by the first work on this disc. Weinberg’s mother was from Moldavia and Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes
, though based on Moldavian folk tunes, could easily be mistaken for Jewish music. David Fanning, the author of the booklet accompanying the disc - and of a biography of Weinberg from 2010 entitled Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom
points this out saying “Bessarabian* musical folklore was strongly influenced by the huge Jewish population in the area, and the musical language of the Rhapsody
has many Jewish sounding inflections” (*Bessarabia is the old name for the territory that became the Moldavian Soviet Republic, now the Republic of Moldova).
Originally an orchestral work, the Rhapsody
transposes happily as a sonata for violin and piano. It is an extremely attractive work, full of fun and energy. The fingerings for the solo part are by David Oistrakh and one can easily imagine the great virtuoso enjoying playing it. There is that fascinating element in it which borders on the bittersweet - a feature often found in klezmer which obviously exerted an influence on Moldavian tunes.
With its beautiful opening movement, his Sonata No.2 for violin and piano, Op.15
shows that Weinberg was already well on the way to mastering the violin sonata genre. The memorably attractive theme that recurs in the last movement would have merited reworking and reappearing in another work. The second movement, a lovely song without words, is heartfelt and romantic. The final movement opens with the aforementioned restatement of the opening movement’s main theme. This is developed and occupies much of the movement’s material. The sonata ends abruptly in a way that David Fanning suggests was the result of a composer who was still honing his craft.
Weinberg’s Sonata No.2 for violin solo, Op.95
which dates from 1967 shows his experimental side. It’s a work he’d certainly not have dared release during the 1950s. If he had he would have immediately invoked the wrath of the cultural watchdogs who would have accused him of ‘formalism’ - a euphemism for anything they neither liked nor understood. Basically a series of etudes this work is highly effective and as it progresses, is increasingly technically demanding.
Weinberg was arrested and jailed in 1953 on a charge of ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’. Shostakovich sent a letter sent to Lavrenty Beria, the feared and hated head of the MGB (later the KGB), demanding his release. Following that release, shortly after Stalin’s death in March that year, the first work Weinberg completed was his Sonata No.5 for violin and piano, Op.53
which he dedicated to Shostakovich. Right from its opening the sonata contains some elements of folk music. This was a feature of Weinberg’s music, unsurprisingly since folk music is such a rich resource to be explored in most countries. The first movement’s sad overtones are offset by its beauty. The second is relentless where the first was restrained. This creates a disturbed and ominous atmosphere whilst the third sounds like a dance of death. The macabre nature of the latter is tinged with the wry humour that characterises so much Jewish music. The beautiful opening of the last movement goes on to recall material from the first as well as the previous one. It becomes both agitated and driven before ending on a quiet and reflective note. David Fanning rightly describes this sonata as one that “can surely claim to be not only the finest of Weinberg’s violin-and-piano sonatas but also one of his most outstanding achievements in any genre.”
His catalogue includes 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets and much else. There is a wealth of music by this fascinating and intriguing composer yet to discover. This disc is another important step in helping Weinberg’s music become better known. It is becoming quite clear that he was one of the great composers of the twentieth century alongside Shostakovich, his friend and mentor.
The works on this disc are played with both skill and an obvious love and understanding of the material by the two musicians. The volume one disc of theirs is equally praiseworthy - see review