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Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
On the Threshold of Hope
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op.28 (1945) [18:41]
Jewish Songs after Shmuel Halkin, Op.17 (1944) [14:40] 
Piano Quintet, Op.18 (1944) [43:22]
Richard Margison (tenor)
ARC Ensemble (Joaquin Valdepeņas (clarinet) David Louis, Dianne Werner (piano) Erika Raum, Marie Berard (violins), Steven Dann (viola), Bryan Epperson (cello) 
rec. 2006, Toronto Centre for the Arts; Willowdale United Church, Toronto.
RCA 82876 877692 [74:43]

The renaissance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg continues apace, but the date of this recording places it more amongst the vanguard of mainstream releases than a follower of the growing trend for Weinberg’s rediscovery and rehabilitation as a composer of stature.

It was reviewed on these pages back in 2008 and seems to have become hard to acquire in the UK, so download options or import sources may offer the best options. The title, “On the Threshold of Hope”, is a reference to the period from which all of these pieces come, seemingly the darkest of days during the Second World War but also a period in which the repression of Jewish peoples by the Soviet Union was temporarily eased. This was a pragmatic act which sought to mobilise as many resources as possible during the “Great Patriotic War”, but the ‘hope of better days’ must have seemed strong at the time.

While Weinberg is seen today as a strong musical voice in his own right the key to his work remains the strong influence of Shostakovich on his idiom. There are plenty of Jewish gestures in the Clarinet Sonata, though the solo instrument itself encourages such associations. This is a substantial piece with oodles of superb content, and can stand amongst any in the genre. There is much that is reflective and atmospherically nostalgic in the work, which ends in a spare, slow Adagio. The first movement is full of uplifting character and the second has almost American inflections of melody – a possible salute towards the US cavalry which would ultimately help us all to get through WWII. Virtuoso display is very much in the back seat, but musicality of expression is a core requirement and these musicians have this score nailed, the sense of an iron fist in a velvet glove perfectly balanced in a performance of sometimes tragic firmness and clear moments of triumph and limpid beauty. The only alternative I could find for this piece in its original form is from CPO with clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs and pianist Elisaveta Blumina (review), but the contrasts of lively if seemingly regret–tinged fun are not allowed their full expression in this version, with timings longer and tragedy more to the fore. This is fine, but I prefer the wider extremes of poignancy allowed by Valdepeņas and Werner, bringing us up as well as down.

I haven’t managed to track down an alternative for the Jewish Songs Op. 17, but Richard Margison’s vocal performance is very good. His ‘loud’ gear can be a little lacking in variety of tone though this may have something to do with the recording, which places him at a respectful distance from the microphone. The quietly fearful opening of Nayyor lid or New Year’s Song shows subtle sides to this performance, and the inflections of the Yiddish language seems convincing enough to my untutored ears. This cycle was neither published nor performed in its own time, and given the themes of suffering and tragedies of war this is hardly surprising given the political climate. The texts are given in English translation as well as the original. This is a cycle full of directly expressed and mostly compact settings which have plenty of power – the music descending from the words without pretensions and airs. The longest, Tife griber, royter leym (Deep Pits, Crimson Clay) is a grim masterpiece, lines such as “By the graves of the departed / By the deep pits full of bodies / Will our pain be overcome” saying enough about the images communicated.

The Piano Quintet Op. 18 opens with inescapable Shostakovich fingerprints of a piano melody in octaves amongst the strings, but the quality in the music is also immediately apparent. Superbly written for the instruments, Weinberg defines the piano from the strings but avoids turning the work into too much of a concerto, delivering interest and drama for all concerned throughout. There are five movements, with two ‘scherzos’ dividing what would otherwise be a traditional three-movement structure. The 14 minute Largo is a remarkable piece in its own right and, far from flagging in inventiveness, the final Allegro agitato is positively symphonic in its ambitions.

There are a few alternatives for the Piano Quintet available and that with the Borodin Quartet on the Melodiya label makes a strong case from the outset (review). Coupled with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet there is a decent recording on the Hänssler Classic label (CD93.260) with the Szymanowski Quartet which I find lacks the urgency required in the first movement. It is generally longer in timings and with more vibrato in the strings wears its emotion a little too much on its sleeve for my taste. ‘Con moto’ is also rather missing from the opening when it comes to the EOS Quartet on Neos (NEOS11128) in an occasionally rather noisy and not very stereo live recording (review). The Kopelman Quartet with Elizaveta Kopelman on piano from Nimbus (NI5865 – review) is better, having a more distant piano balance than most but with greater energetic pace in the opening movement, actually undercutting the ARC Ensemble by a few seconds. Of all these I would pick the ARC Ensemble for the recording balance and sheer intensity of the playing, managing to maintain control and refinement even when the wounds are at their most raw.

In all this remains a very fine Mieczyslaw Weinberg programme from an unlikely mainstream source. Admirable RCA production standards and excellent performances make this a fine chamber music selection from an important period in the composer’s life. If you can find a copy I would urge you to snap it up pronto.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Rob Barnett

Weinberg review index