Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Chamber Symphony No. 3 op. 151 (1990) [32.56]
Chamber Symphony No. 4 op. 153 (1992) [32:34]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
rec. Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden, 2014

It can often be felt that composers who have had many years of being incredibly prolific, as Weinberg was, rather lose their inspiration in older age. It may be thought that they tend to fall back on well-oiled grooves or on pieces that were successful or which they themselves liked but felt that the music has not yet reached a wide enough audience. Contrariwise you could also argue that the composer, now so on top of his technique, looks at the earlier material and sees so much more that can be done with it.

Chamber Symphony No. 3 is in effect Weinberg's Symphony No. 23 because he decided, rather mischievously to add 'Chamber' to these big-boned works as he had already reached Symphony No. 20. The symphony uses much material from his String Quartet No.5 of 1945 which some of you might have in its CPO recording (777 394-2).

Weinberg does not simply transcribe the music, but as David Fanning in his expert notes tells us, he develops and “diverges” from the initial ideas. So, this work begins with the quartet’s opening Lento. Its searing solo and recitativic line entitled ‘Melody’ is here extended for over ten minutes. The quartet’s third movement, an Allegro molto, comes next. It was originally a Scherzo or ‘Humoresque’. This now includes a theme which is a march from his comic opera of 1975 ‘Mazi tov!’. The Adagio third movement which follows immediately “closely shadows the fourth movement, ‘improvisation’ of the quartet with adjustments to instrumentation”. This Chamber Symphony’s fourth movement is freshly composed however, being a “sad, wistful Andantino”. Its melody, a Sarabande, is said to be derived from Weinberg’s operetta D’Artagnan .

When I read all this initially, I thought that the work might be a bit of a ‘dog's dinner’ but I was completely wrong. I am not yet familiar enough with Weinberg but his composing methods are becoming clearer to me. Fanning describes the language as somewhere between Mahler and Bartók. I would add strongly that Shostakovich, a close friend and neighbour, is definitely present. This is felt especially in the second movement whose rhythmic gestures are so very close to those of his great friend.

The following year Weinberg completed his penultimate work. the Chamber Symphony No. 4. This is in four connected movements and scored for strings, clarinet and, curiously, a triangle. The latter does not play until movement four and then only four times. In between Weinberg had been commissioned to write some incidental music for a play by the Jewish author Yosef Bar-Yosef called ‘Difficult People’. Weinberg, although born in Poland, was from a Jewish family and had fled from Germany to the Soviet Union. Therefore he not only understood Jewish culture and music but was also able to be influenced by it.

So it happens that the fourth movement of this work uses a folk-like tune derived from material used for the incidental music. This is mainly played by the ‘klezmer’-like clarinet. Self-quotation is again in evidence. Indeed this technique permeates other sections of the piece. The opening of the first movement employs a chorale-style theme which he had used in several works but first of all in an early opera ‘The Portrait’. Later on the clarinet quotes a melody from his 17th String Quartet. The sudden burst of ‘ff’ launches into an Allegro molto which Fanning says recalls: ”the Burlesque from Bartók’s 6th String Quartet”. The moving, haunted and elegiac third movement uses the melody of a song from a cycle called ‘Reminiscences Op 62’. Again its amiable simplicity could be called folk-like. A valedictory air falls over the enigmatic closing moments. I was much moved by this work and it has developed if not changed my view of this fascinating composer.

I had not heard the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra previously but under Thord Svedlund - who already has four other Weinberg discs to his name on Chandos (review; review; review; review) - they are wonderfully receptive to the depths of the music. They play with beauty of tone and precision. The super-audio recording will not disappoint.

The booklet has that excellent essay by David Fanning and some photographs of the composer.

It's worth adding that Svedlund has recorded the chamber symphonies before. This was in 1998 for Olympia. Those recordings, reissued on Alto, were reviewed here. There is also a CD of Chamber symphonies 1, 3 and 4 on Claves which was reviewed here.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: David Barker

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