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Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony No. 13, Op. 115 (1976) [34:42]
Serenade, Op. 47 (1952) [18:18]
Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk)/Vladimir Lande
rec. 2017, Philharmonic Hall, Krasnoyarsk, Russia
NAXOS 8.573879 [53:04]

The Weinberg Symphony No. 13 has an odd structure – a single movement with no clearly delineated inner movements, its themes and motivic fragments coming and going, not randomly but as part of an elaborately worked out web of interrelated ideas and feelings. It is a sombre, deeply profound work that mires itself in gloom at the outset with a theme on unison violas and proceeds to struggle against its oppressive pall as it develops with full orchestra, becoming very tense and eventually desperate. There are several climactic episodes before the music finally reaches an epiphanic sort of lyrical passage mainly on strings, which then yields to solo instruments in chamber music fashion playing what might strike the listener as ghostly echoes of the earlier music. Another tense episode ensues before a viola and other solo instruments, including harp, bring on a quiet ending; the mood as much cold as sad, as if tears must be held back. Incidentally, in the symphony the composer quotes a chorale from his 1968 opera The Passenger, a quite compelling composition whose grim story relates to the holocaust.

Warsaw-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg (originally Mojsze Wajnberg) fled the Nazis in 1939, the same year he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory. He settled in the Soviet Union where he remained as a mostly obscure composer until his death in 1996. His mother, father and sister perished in the Trawniki concentration camp in Poland in the early 1940s. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of his mother and as you listen to it, you sense some programmatic aspect at work in the music. But it’s not as if events are being depicted, but rather feelings associated with events: fear, sadness, abject tragedy, anger, loneliness and hopelessness.

At least that’s my take on the music, and I’ll say further that I found it to be of high artistic worth. I don’t want to say it is enjoyable or entertaining as I’m sure the music is an expression of the composer’s feelings about the tragedy that befell his mother (and other family members). Indeed, it’s hard to say we enjoy music about someone else’s suffering. It’s different when we delight in a sadly beautiful aria sung by an abused dying character in an opera, because we know it’s not real, we know the character will soon be taking curtain calls and we’ll be cheering and clapping. But Weinberg’s music here is all too real, its tragedy grim, almost palpable. Yet, it becomes a positive experience for the listener because it is a powerful artistic redress to injustice and cruel tragedy.

This is the world premiere recording of the work and so there can be no comparison with a previous performance. But I don’t think that is necessary because the playing here by the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra sounds totally committed, accurately played and well interpreted by Vladimir Lande, who has been working his way through Weinberg’s symphonies for the past several years for the Naxos label. I have Nos. 6, 12, 18 and 19 from this series. No. 18 is the best of these, with perhaps No. 12 coming next, after which I would place the uneven Sixth and patriotic Nineteenth. I also have No. 21 on the Toccata label, a work that is much bleaker than No. 13: it is very dark, a piece that would make Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum sound happy by comparison. In all the Weinberg symphonies that I’ve heard there is a noticeable stylistic debt to Shostakovich, but I can’t say that he mimics or imitates Shostakovich in any significant way. Shostakovich, by the way, was a mentor to Weinberg and a composer Weinberg greatly admired.

The other work here is Serenade, a light four-movement piece that is, in a sense, the flip-side of the symphony’s gloom and tragedy. It is sunny and full of cheer, celebratory, very colorfully orchestrated and again with hints of Shostakovich. It is not an inconsequential effort, not a piece of pure fluff, but it features a measure of bombast and sounds a bit generic, almost as if it is music you’ve heard before. This is another premiere recording and Lande and company bring it off in great style. The sound reproduction in both works is vivid and well balanced. Album notes by Richard Whitehouse are informative. If Weinberg is a recent (or longtime) interest of yours, you’ll certainly want this disc. Others unfamiliar with his work but with a liking for Shostakovich or Russian music from the mid- and late-20th century of a darker bent will not be disappointed by this CD.
Robert Cummings

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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