I first came across the music of Weinberg (then styled Vainberg) about thirty years ago, on a memorable HMV/Melodiya LP of his Fourth Symphony and his Violin Concerto, and was struck by the many similarities of style these pieces have with the music of the composer’s friend and mentor, Shostakovich. That said, particularly judging by his later works, Weinberg is not a clone and, in the last few years, he has very much emerged from the long shadow of the older composer. Whilst his music has yet to achieve regular performances in the concert hall (at least in the West), plenty of recordings of it have been made. For the uninitiated, Weinberg’s works for violin and piano probably provide as good a starting place as any. With the exception of the Sonata No 6, a late work, all the other works here come from a turbulent period of 11 years between 1943 and 1953.
The first three sonatas all follow the fast-slow-fast pattern of movements. The first sonata (1943) begins with an Allegro, quietly - with the instruments in unison – almost like music from the early Classical period, before moving rapidly into a style that is more recognisably Soviet (a word which, somehow, keeps coming to mind). This is particularly characterised by the use of unison hands in the piano - there are very few chords. Of course this is a device Shostakovich frequently employed (think of the Piano Quintet Scherzo or the first movement of the Piano Concerto No.2). Whilst there is some variation of mood, Weinberg particularly seems to use the bare notes to achieve an effect of bleakness, bereft of warmth. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the wartime circumstances surrounding the music’s composition, but it becomes a little wearing. The performers begin the second movement Adagietto at a tempo that can only be described as Andante, although I suspect the reason for this is to provide contrast with what follows. By the excitable third movement Allegro we get what the booklet note refers to as a “lively discussion”, which becomes a “heated confrontation” before the music subsides to a quiet ending (the strenuous climax followed by a quiet ending being a frequent characteristic of these sonatas). By this early stage I was a little concerned at the tendency for loud passages to remain solidly loud – there being relatively little in the way of light and shade. Without the score it is difficult to know, whether this is the composer’s intention or not, but, for me, this feature doesn’t help the music’s cause. Whilst this work comes from a recognisably similar school to that of Prokofiev, it rather lacks that composer’s textural variation and interest.
The second sonata of 1944 is dedicated to David Oistrakh and Frieda Bauer (who were to give it its premier performance as late as 1962). The opening Allegro strikes me as more successful – with greater variation of dynamics and texture. There is a rhapsodic opening, which could almost be Brahms for a few seconds, but this soon builds to a powerful climax. An incisive “rat-a-tat” passage left me feeling a bit shell-shocked (again possibly appropriately - given the date of composition) but we then head into calmer waters and a quiet pizzicato ending. The Lento that follows has deep piano bass notes supporting an elegiac violin theme. Once again, this struck me as starting out too loud – although it does get quieter, before building to a thundering piano climax. As before, I assume the artists were seeking to achieve contrast, but I feel they were not entirely successful in this respect. The following linked Allegro starts nonchalantly and rapidly moves to “an intense discussion” (uniformly loud), which incorporates harmonics and pizzicato passages, before going through a transition (described by the notes as “ironic”, but where the irony escaped me) back to the main theme and a rather aggressive and pummelled ending.
The third sonata of 1947 is described as deploying “Jewish melodic elements”, although these were not particularly evident to me. Its Allegro Moderato first movement starts with an undulating theme that sounds a bit like Prokofiev – but with odd outbursts of notes which suggest the composer was deliberately disrupting the melodic line. The Andantino that follows starts quietly in the piano with a discursive theme that is to be taken up by the violin before being developed into an “impassioned dialogue” – eventually sinking into a more gentle pizzicato exchange. Finally, we get an excitable Allegretto, which starts with a gentle theme that develops into a “confrontational martial section”, followed by a “cadenza” passage and a recall of the opening theme with an affecting quiet ending. Get the picture? Rather regular deployment of similar structures and little evidence of any evolution of style so far – a potential problem when attempting to provide comprehensive coverage of a composer’s similar works in chronological sequence.
What about performance and recording? Well, lest my comments so far be taken as unduly critical, I feel that, technically, the two artists are fine. The violinist is excellent, with a pure tone and secure intonation and none of those slightly distracting technical foibles one often finds – even with well-known performers. The pianist is equally secure and reliable – especially as an accompanist (she can sound less confident in solo passages). So far, my main concern is that they both have the occasional tendency not to vary the attack in some loud passages. The recording is vivid and close but airless. I could have done with a bit more space and distance around the performers and I think that might have helped the atmosphere of some of the quieter music. By this stage I was beginning to despair that CD2 might simply provide more of the same – which would have been a lot to consume in a single sitting. Fortunately, I was to be pleasantly surprised.
The fourth violin sonata of 1947 is dedicated to Leonid Kogan. Here we get a slow-fast-slow movement structure. The opening Adagio begins with a sombre piano introduction for 2 minutes or so, followed by “introspective dialogue”. This successfully bucks the trend of a lack of variation. Moreover, there seems to be a little more air around the performers here – and this is welcome. The second movement Allegro ma non troppo is in best hectic Soviet style but quite memorable. It subsides into a linked third movement Adagio which revisits the mood of the opening movement.
The Sonatina of 1949 is placed last on the disc but I wanted to sample it next because its composition followed two significant events in Weinberg’s life in 1948. These were the murder of his father-in-law, the actor Solomon Mikhoels (on the orders of Stalin) and the Zhdanov decree – whereby the Communist party sought to curtail artistic freedom and meet the “demand for music of a more accessible and even compliant nature”. Of course, the decree had a profound influence on many Soviet composers - notably Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Weinberg’s works were not banned but he was simply ignored by the Soviet musical establishment and the Sonatina gives us an early example of his reaction. Whatever one may feel about politicians meddling in artistic matters, it is undeniable that some good came of the “Zhdanovshchina” and I suspect that Weinberg’s music following the event probably was more widely accessible and listenable than it otherwise might have been. As the name suggests this work is lighter in tone than the sonatas preceding it and largely avoids their bleakness – in spite of the events preceding it. It certainly provides some contrast and I very much enjoyed it.
The fifth sonata of 1953 was the first work written immediately following Stalin’s death and the composer’s release from a three-month spell of imprisonment (for alleged “Jewish subversion”), but the work is not as bleak as one might expect – and we probably have Zhdanov to thank for that as well, although the work may be actually be a thank you to Shostakovich, who had agitated for Weinberg’s release. The opening elegaic Andante provides a complete contrast to the other sonatas and the music could almost be English – except that there is no trace of the serialist tendencies characterising much English music of the time. This is followed by a playful Allegro, which develops to a vehement climax, followed by a murmuring piano passage and a thudding coda before coming to an abrupt halt. Much of this music sounds like something Prokofiev could have written. After a further cantering Allegro moderato third movement, the last movement begins like the opening of Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata – the one where the composer refers to “the wind in the graveyard” (although it is not played quite softly enough here to achieve that effect).
It is not clear, why the composer abandoned the duo medium at the end of the 1950s. The sixth sonata dates from as late as 1982 and was the only one the composer was not to hear performed. This is quite different again – being in a single movement. The opening violin solo makes it sound like a solo violin work for 90 seconds or so and this is followed with piano accompaniment (some in unison) that begins to sound like Janáček in places. We do get some bare and bleak music, but it is dissonant and more like Bartók than Shostakovich. There is a false ending and (again!) a quiet close. Not very congenial but certainly marking a further evolution in style from what had gone before.
As a whole the second CD has some slight variability of recording acoustic. Generally there is greater openness except for the recording of the fifth sonata, where the piano bass is not so sonorous and the effect is to make it sound slightly like a home recording in a living room.
These works have fared very well in terms of relatively recent recordings. The complete works - including, but not limited to, the six sonatas and a sonatina included here - are available (or will soon be available) on no fewer than three alternative labels: Challenge, with Linus Roth and Jose Gallardo; CPO, with Stefan and Andreas Kirpal; and Toccata, with Yuri Kalnits and Michael Csányi-Wills. Of course, several individual sonatas are available elsewhere – e.g. on Warner Classics (featuring a performance by Gidon Kremer and Marta Argerich – no less) but, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll restrict comparison to the competing labels aiming to provide the complete violin and piano works.
The CPO set strikes me as achieving the best compromise in terms of acoustic – although the piano tends to overpower the violin in places. Also, I find Stefan Kirpal’s under-nourished violin tone distracting, especially in the higher registers. The present Naxos set offers strong performances - sometimes lacking in subtlety but, as I have indicated, the Naxos recording generally is a bit of an issue. Of course anybody prepared to put the individual movements through an audio editor and add a little reverberation could probably make the end result more listenable (but why didn’t Naxos do that?). The 2-volume Challenge set has a similarly dry acoustic, although the performers are set back a bit further, which helps. I found these performances slightly more refined than those on the Naxos disc – with the possible exception of No 6, which is significantly slower at 15:03. The Toccata set, offering all the works for violin and piano - of which only volumes 1 and 2 have so far been released (review ~ review) suffers from the opposite problem. Whilst the playing is very fine the recording is slightly over-reverberant – which is an equal distraction for me.
In the final analysis your choice may also be guided by comprehensiveness of coverage. For the six violin and piano sonatas and sonatina alone I would probably go for the Challenge set but, at bargain price, the present Naxos performances are pretty good – and you do get used to the sound.