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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-96)
Sonata No.3, Op.126 for solo violin (1979) [22:14]
Trio, Op.48 for violin, viola and violoncello (1950) [14:48]
Sonatina, Op.46 for violin and piano (1949) [13:18]
Concertino, Op.42 for violin and string orchestra (1948) [15:51]
Symphony No.10, Op.98 for string orchestra (1968) [34:34]
Gidon Kremer (violin), Daniil Grishin (viola)
Giedre Dirvanauskaite (cello), Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Kremerata Baltica
rec. November 2012 and July 2013, Neuhardenberg, Germany and Lockenhaus, Austria (opp.46 and 126)
ECM 2368/69 [50:20 + 50:25]

As a huge fan of Weinberg I am thrilled that the list of discs of his music being released is ever-growing. This latest addition is particularly welcome since it includes solo, chamber and orchestral works. Additionally since these five works are from various periods of his composing life they offer an interesting insight into his creative thinking.

Gidon Kremer places Weinberg’s lengthy and extremely complex sonata for solo violin alongside that of Bartók which is considered as one of the pinnacles of 20th century music. This will undoubtedly surprise many, especially those who have not yet discovered the breadth of invention this composer demonstrates. The work is dedicated to the composer’s father who, along with the rest of his family who had escaped the pogroms which swept away his grandparents and many other relatives, died in the Nazi’s concentration camps. Weinberg was left as the sole survivor. Kremer’s playing is superb as one would expect and shows complete understanding of the material by a violinist who has clearly lived with the work for some considerable time. Solo violin sonatas are not an easy proposition for many but for those prepared to listen to this work several times the rewards will flow. Gradually complexity is replaced by sheer beauty which shines through strongly together with both irony and wit.

The Trio is much more immediately appealing: full of catchy little tunes laced with Weinberg’s facility for incorporating Jewish musical references that involve irony, wit, sadness and resignation. The first movement is merrily dance-like while the second is melancholic in nature. The last reverts to the atmosphere of the opening, though now whetted with a sardonic edge. It is surprising and regrettable to read that this was the only piece he wrote for this combination of instruments.

The earliest work on the first disc is Weinberg’s Sonatina for violin and piano which he wrote in 1949. Considering the political atmosphere of that period of Soviet history, with Stalin’s paranoia manifesting itself in increasingly tyrannical edicts that swept millions into the gulags, this work is surprisingly upbeat. You can hear this in its opening movement although the second is a good deal more serious. The last is also happy with dancing rhythms subjected to some ironic twists. It is said that Weinberg, who had more reasons than Shostakovich to be anxious about the authorities given their attitude towards Jewish composers, was nevertheless generally given to greater optimism and this is reflected in his music.

The second disc opens with his Concertino, Op.42 for violin and string orchestra which dates from 1948, the same period as the Sonatina. It’s another breezy and delightfully tuneful work that often sounds a million miles away from the terrors being visited upon the composer’s adopted homeland. Reviewing a disc of Russian Violin Concertos back in January which also included this work I noted how much the opening movement reminded me of Vaughan Williams, Bax and Walton. It radiates a feeling of rolling countryside which is so often reflected in English music. The first movement fairly skips along with a bright, carefree, happy tune while the second, though more reflective, is still light in character. The last is in the form of a waltz with a charming rather wistful melody at its core though it becomes manic at the end. The booklet notes say of the whole work that “... its lyrical character satisfied official demands for ingratiating melody ...” If that is the case then I say that it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. After all, there is so much of Weinberg that had to steer carefully in the prevailing atmosphere in the Soviet Union, that is more than just listenable but is genuinely wonderful. The same can be said for Shostakovich and a host of other Soviet composers; without the diktats of the authorities which were ridiculous at best and downright evil at worst we wouldn’t have Shostakovich’s fifth symphony which became the public’s favourite which it still is.

Weinberg’s Tenth Symphony, written in 1968 was commissioned by conductor Rudolf Barshai and is dedicated to him and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Scored for string orchestra it is a remarkable work which has been described as “... a truly major achievement of contemporary music, standing next to Einojuhani Rautavaara's 7th Symphony "Angel of Light" from 1994, and Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony from 1948.” This is completely justified since this mighty work is much greater than the sum of its parts and across its 34 minutes inhabits whole worlds. Within it there are periods in which solo instruments give the impression of a concerto for variously violin, viola, cello and even double bass. It is a complex work that requires several hearings before it reveals itself completely and is the closest to atonality that I have heard Weinberg come. The first movement opens with a theme that recurs several times. This symphony is experimental in nature as well as being quite a lot darker than I have become used to expecting although it lightens up later for a short time. The cello takes a significant role in this movement heralding a return to darkness. It is not surprising that, originally scored for only 17 instruments, it has the feeling of a chamber symphony. That said, the powerful nature of the music seems accentuated by the sparse writing. Generally I can do no better than quote what the brochure writer Wolfgang Sandner says, “... above all it is an uncommonly gripping work flanked by two mighty grave sections and abounding in unexpected combinations of sound, powerful forte explosions, orgies of glissando, and furtive drone basses beneath freely phrased cantilenas and contorted rhythms, including a sonic Tower of Babel perceptible only through a perusal of the score.” It certainly gives profound food for thought as a symphony that is as serious as any one can name. It is so utterly compelling that it doesn’t easily let you go and the feeling that you must hear it again, when you surely will uncover more layers, is almost irresistible. Beware, though, as it leaves you quite drained.

The Kremerata Baltica is a fantastically impressive ensemble whose every fibre is strained to ensuring readings of the highest quality. Each of the featured soloists proves himself or herself amongst the worthiest of musicians. All go towards making this an extremely significant release in the ever-expanding discography of a true giant of twentieth century music.

Steve Arloff