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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Suite for Orchestra (1950) [19:08]
Symphony no.17, ‘Memory’, op.137 (1982-4) [45:41]
Siberian State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
rec. Jul 7-14 2015 at Krosnyarsk Philharmonic Great Hall, Krasnoyarsk City, Russia
NAXOS 8.573565 [64.49]

Mieczysław Weinberg – whose music was virtually unknown in the West until quite recently – composed, despite the incredible difficulty of the circumstances of his life, an enormous amount of music, including seventeen string quartets and no less than twenty-six symphonies, which puts him, in sheer prolificity among twentieth century symphonists close to Myaskovsky (27), but lagging somewhat behind Havergal Brian (32). Outstanding among Weinberg’s symphonies is the trilogy made up of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth symphonies, collectively entitled On the Threshold of War. This refers to what is known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War, or, in other words, World War Two.

So here we have no.17, ‘Memory’; it is a four-movement work with what might be thought a relatively conventional profile. But the way Weinberg handles the symphonic form and his material is, in all aspects, highly personal, and it is an unquestionably powerful statement. The movements are: an opening slow movement - Adagio sostenuto - of great intensity; then a fast, furious and lengthy Allegro molto; a much shorter Allegro molto, pesante; and another long movement, marked Andante, to complete the work.

There is, as far as I can ascertain, only one other recording of this symphony, that of a 2013 concert performance by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev. Though that is a committed performance, the sound is rather ‘raw’, and orchestral ensemble is often rough round the edges. The Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, on the Naxos recording, plays well, even if the strings do lack the bloom of a really top-class outfit. The recording is extremely well-balanced, so that wonderful moments, such as the entry of the harpsichord in the second movement, make the maximum impact. In fact, I found this the finest movement of the four; Weinberg constructs the movement so consistently from the various melodic motifs, and the scoring, particularly its use of the two keyboard instruments – piano and harpsichord – is outstandingly atmospheric. The way it eventually resolves into a searing elegy for the high strings is compelling, as is the sense of disintegration at its close.

This is certainly an impressive work, which deserves a distinguished place among the great World War Two symphonies – Vaughan Williams 6, Prokofiev 6, Shostakovich 7 and 8, Copland 3 and Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique, to name a few of the best known. Inevitably not the most cheerful piece, and some will find it grim. I would prefer the word ‘bracing’, for Weinberg maintains the concentration and the symphonic argument strongly throughout the work’s forty-five minute duration.

But it is demanding, which is why it was such a good idea to begin the CD with something as hugely entertaining as the little Suite for Orchestra of 1950. This is pure delight, and I’d be very surprised if this piece was not now taken up by other orchestras (this is the first recording). The opening Romance has a gorgeously lachrymose theme, first heard in the trumpet, while the Humoresque has deliciously light scoring. The spirit of Shostakovich hovers very close; Weinberg’s third movement recreates perfectly the mood of those haunted and very Russian waltzes found in both of the older composer’s Jazz Suites.

An impressive and enjoyable disc then. And one other thing; we don’t often credit the writers of booklet notes, so I wanted to mention the exemplary notes provided for this issue by Richard Whitehouse. Genuinely helpful and informative, unlike some writers who sometimes appear simply to want to blind us with their musicological ‘insights’. After all, how many of us want - or need – to know what key the music modulates to in bar 63 etcetera, etcetera?

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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