The Toccata Classics 2014 release of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21, Op. 152 Kaddish and Polish Tunes, Op. 47, No. 2 was remarkable and created considerable interest. Now Toccata present a second Weinberg volume comprising two world première recordings. Once again Toccata use the admirable Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev.
Thanks to a burgeoning interest in Weinberg there is now an increasing number of recordings of this Polish-born Soviet composer. The Bregenz Festival in 2011 headlined a Weinberg Retrospective and gave the stage première of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera The Passenger directed by David Pountney the festival’s music director (review ~ review). As the Bregenz festival’s featured composer a number of other Weinberg scores were performed including his Gogol opera The Portrait directed by John Fulljames. David Fanning’s recent book Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom has undoubtedly increased awareness and further widened the knowledge of this talented and fascinating composer. It would only take a renowned conductor - maybe one born in Russia - such as Kirill Petrenko, Vasily Petrenko or Kirill Karabits to make recordings of Weinberg’s symphonic works to command international attention.
From 1958 The White Chrysanthemum ballet in three acts after A. Rumnev and J. Romanovich has a scenario based on a girl who is blinded at Hiroshima but later has her sight restored by Soviet doctors. The ballet was never staged probably due to difficult political relations with Japan around that time. No score has been found and it is even possible that Weinberg left the ballet unorchestrated. It was Weinberg himself who extracted the Six Ballet Scenes and orchestrated them as the Choreographic Symphony and dated the manuscript July 1973. This is a memorable score, full of delicious contrasts, often percussion laden in a similar way to late Shostakovich. In the energetic and restless opening Allegro the forceful percussion seem to be jousting with the strings and the following Adagio is infused with an exotic middle-eastern flavour. Appealing is the playful and dance-like Allegretto and the dark mystery of the Adagio-Moderato is heavy with foreboding. Especially engaging, the penultimate movement an Adagio contains some gloriously melodic writing that could have easily come from the pen of Rachmaninov. Ending the work the Presto just bristles with raw energy. Towards the beginning of the movement the music contains a definite klezmer feel but overall has all the vivacious force of Prokofiev.
Illness delayed Weinberg’s writing of his Symphony No. 22 and it was left unfinished at his death in 1996. Dedicated to Olya his wife the unfinished manuscript was completed in piano version only. Weinberg’s widow suggested to Kirill Umansky that he might orchestrate the score. Immersing himself in Weinberg’s symphonic music Umansky completed the orchestration and the first performance was given by the Belgorod State Philharmonic Orchestra in 2003. The symphony steeped in melancholy is notable for its bleak rather severe character and sense of foreboding. I found little in the way of contrast throughout the three movements and although it’s not a work I especially enjoyed its intensity and severe emotions are certainly hard to ignore. At just under 25 minutes the opening movement is over double the length of the next longest. Titled Fantasia the writing contains a feeling of intense sadness and a searching quality combined with a near constant icy chill. Relatively short at just over 5 minutes the second movement an Intermezzo contains that now familiar bleakness although it’s not quite as harsh. Titled Reminiscences the Finale eschews originality returning to the austere character of the opening movement.
Under the assured baton of Dmitry Vasilyev the Siberian Symphony Orchestra excel with compelling playing of unyielding vitality in the Six Ballet Scenes and vigour matched with sheer concentration in the Symphony. Recorded at Philharmonic Concert Hall, Omsk in Siberia the sound quality is full and clear. The release also has the benefit of a helpful essay in the booklet from leading Weinberg authority David Fanning.
For those unaccustomed to Weinberg this admirably played release is not the place to start however the Six Ballet Scenes was a satisfying surprise and is worth obtaining for that alone.