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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Sonata no.4 for violin and piano Op.39 (1947) [19:46]
Sonatina for violin and piano Op.46 (1949) [16:06]
Sonata no.5 for violin and piano Op.53 (1953) [26:53]
Maria Sławek (violin), Piotr Różański (piano)
rec. 2014, Concert Hall of the Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD217-2 [63:00]

Katarzyna BROCHOCKA (b.1982)
Pas de basse. Suite for solo double bass* [14:05]
Sonata for double bass & piano* [14:04]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Sonata op.108 for solo double bass [20:06]
Double bass concerto (2007) version for double bass & piano (2009)* [14:18]
Karol Kowal (double bass), Katarzyna Brochocka (piano)
*world premičre recording
No recording details given
CD ACCORD ACD218-2 [63:05]

I hope lovers of Weinberg are as thrilled as I am with the plethora of discs of his music that seems to be released in a continual stream. I know I have only a small portion of his output yet that already amounts to over 24 discs and includes 2 other recordings of his Op.46 and one other of his Op.53. His chamber music and his solo piano works are just as rewarding as his orchestral music and concertos, all of which show his unique take on harmony and melody and while it is true that he was influenced by his mentor Shostakovich, the influence went both ways and with Weinberg’s Jewish background exerting an added influence his music is pretty easy to indentify once you are used to it. This despite the fact that Shostakovich in all probability drew on his friends’ knowledge of Jewish culture to inform his own compositions in which snatches of Jewish traditional melodies often make their appearance making identifying one from the other at times somewhat more problematic unless you know the piece already. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that narrowing the composer down to a choice between the two is pretty simple.

Sonata No.4 Op.39 may not be experimental in the way that much of the music written around the time (1947) was deemed to be though, in truth, not in the Soviet Union where composers were prevailed upon to compose simple tunes accessible to even the most philistine of listeners but nevertheless in comparison with his 3rd sonata or the sonatina from 1949 it was daring to say the least, especially when to be accused of ‘formalism’ could signal major problems for composers. ‘Formalism’ was defined as “any expression of artistic uniqueness” which when you think about it could endanger any creativity, rendering music a bland wallpaper of similar tunes. As it is, this work is harmonically interesting with much to recommend it and, sparse and spare though it is, it has many beautiful episodes. There has been a suggestion that it contains an allusion to Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps and one can see why with its stripped down nature and eerie, sad and reflective overtones. It is cast in three movements but is played without a break. Halfway through the first Adagio there is some especially gorgeous writing with the violin seeming to revolve around the piano like a bird.

The second movement is fast paced with a devilish edge to it and a march-like opening tune, but it all finishes in a much more subdued manner. The final movement reintroduces material from the first and interestingly as the booklet writer, violinist Maria Sławek puts it, it ends with an F major chord which she says was probably occasioned by Andrei Zhdanov’s decree that composers used ‘optimistic keys and to make sure they finished their pieces in a “positive way”’; idiots!

The Sonatina for violin and piano Op.46, by contrast, complies much more closely with ‘socialist realist’ aims though fortunately for us, composers of the calibre of Weinberg knew how to plough the ‘correct’ musical furrow and still imbue their works with originality, spiced liberally with wit and satire as well as poignancy. The opening melody is delightfully wistful, though with undertones of sadness and thoughtful reflection. The second movement, with its echoes of Jewish and Bessarabian folksongs (Weinberg’s family were originally from that area, now part of Moldova), is extremely attractive with its alternately slow then fast passages. The last movement of this three-movement work begins briskly, with later on Weinberg’s characteristic revisiting of themes from previous movements making for a satisfyingly rounded feel. This is truly another marvellously successful work with all the elements that make Weinberg such an enjoyable composer.

Weinberg’s Sonata no.5 for violin and piano Op.53 is also as beautiful as we have come to expect from this superb craftsman, who had an innate ability to create and develop truly memorable tunes and the artistry to weave them into the fabric of some wonderful works that at last are being recorded widely, gaining new devotees. This monumental sonata, which lasts almost half an hour was composed on his release from the Lubianka and was dedicated to his friend Shostakovich who had risked his life to intercede on Weinberg’s behalf to gain his release, by writing directly to Stalin. With some references to his champion’s music this sonata, considered his greatest for violin and piano, is cast in four movements and has an almost symphonic scale. Incorporating his usual Jewish and folk music quotations it is full of magnificent tunes that Weinberg seemed able to pour out at will. It has that irresistible mix of sunshine and darkness he is renowned for and it commands one’s attention throughout.

I have recordings of both the sonatas by Yuri Kalnits and Michael Csányi-Wills as well as the sonatina by Elizaveta Blumina and Erez Ofer but though I like them, all these two young Poles play with a youthful energy that brings out all the subtleties and nuances beautifully and I will always be glad to have their recording on my shelves.

As with the above mentioned works I have another recording of Weinberg’s Sonata op.108 for solo double bass by Nabil Shehata and again I enjoy them both but this recording by Karol Kowal is a beautifully structured and brilliantly executed performance which highlights all the amazing elements that Weinberg gives this instrument that is too often overlooked by composers yet in the right hands can be made to shine as it does here. Bach’s influence is plainly in evidence which is hardly surprising when a composer wishes to write an extended work for an instrument such as the double bass, the larger brother of the cello for which Bach wrote his six suites which will surely remain unsurpassed in solo cello repertoire. The pleasant surprise here is Weinberg’s ability to show off the double bass as an instrument that is just as well able to show lyricism, joy and pathos as is its smaller stablemate and, in its upper registers sounding very much like it. There is an excellent exposition of the elements involved in this sonata in the accompanying booklet which speaks of conflict and struggle in the outer movements of this six-movement work along with Shostakovian influences and speculation as to whether the hopeful conclusion is somewhat forced when Weinberg’s life is borne in mind. I can’t subscribe to that theory, since Weinberg was far too independent of thought to have felt under pressure to end his work in a more upbeat way than he had intended, especially as late as 1971 when it was written. It is a work that will repay repeated listening and is far less intimidating that one might expect when preparing to listen to twenty minutes of solo double bass.

The other three works on this CD are by Katarzyna Brochochka; born in 1982, who has composed several works for double bass, an instrument she seems to know extremely well judging by these offerings. The first piece is another solo work also with six movements, each given the title of a dance motion: Port de bras, Déboulés, Arabesque, Ballotté, Dégagé, Chassé and they serve to create an arresting work, again like Weinberg’s, fully exploiting the double bass’ sonorous and deliciously rich tones. This is followed by her sonata for double bass and piano which she plays alongside Karol Kowal and which was her first attempt at a multi-movement work for this often ignored member of the orchestral landscape. After a gentle introduction the calm is shattered by a frenzied outburst from each instrument, the piano in particular producing propulsive percussive and spiky rhythms. The second movement again begins quietly with a suggestion of creeping stealth, continuing in the same vein for the rest of it. The third brief movement is full of irony that ends as the booklet describes it “ a coy, humorous ending – a rare moment of relaxation.” The final largo begins with the double bass on its own with a beautifully song-like episode but when the piano enters the mood changes, becoming more mechanical with a return to the spiky rhythms of the opening movement before the double bass solo comes back to establish calm once more and the movement ends when the piano once again inserts itself and together they end the sonata in an unresolved way that begs the question, what next?

The third offering on this interesting disc is the Weinberg (see above) and the disc ends with Brochocka’s double bass and piano version of her three movement double bass concerto. Time was when if asked to name a concerto for double bass most people would only be likely to come up with the one written by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf but today the list of such compositions is over 30. This disc proves that the double bass should not be eschewed any more than the viola. However, there has always been the problem of the instrument’s ability to project itself so that the sound is not overshadowed by the orchestra and the traditional solution is to keep to the highest registers but that can result in overlooking the fabulous sounds that come from its low ones. If this version has not undergone any rearranging in this respect there are plenty of lush sounds from the low registers here so the composer obviously came up with a satisfactory solution for her concerto. After a relatively calm opening movement, the second is a furious dash with no let up, but showing how versatile the double bass can be for all its huge size; the player surely has to be able to physically dominate the instrument to complete the movement’s demands. The third movement is at first an oasis of calm again before speeding up and the work ends with a mad dash of what the booklet writer describes as a “...powerful Shostakovichian fury.”

Katarzyna Brochocka is a composer with much to say and the obvious skills to do so and as such is another representative of the ever-growing number of women composers who are at last making those iconoclasts whose idea is that women composers are less interesting than men revisit their discredited beliefs. Her music is always interesting and often thrilling and I hope to see more of her compositions reach the market. Both she and double bassist Karol Kowal are brilliant players and have brought these works to life in dazzling fashion. The Weinberg is wonderfully played by Kowal and makes for a thoroughly engaging listen.

Both discs deserve not only to be heard by the listener who is already open to what the double bass’ possibilities are but by those as yet a little trepidacious when it comes to this kind of repertoire and I thoroughly recommend them.

Steve Arloff




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