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Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1966)
24 Preludes for Violoncello Solo, Op.100 (1968, arr. Kremer for solo violin)
Gidon Kremer (violin)
rec. 2017, Paliesiaus Dvaras, Lithuania

Written for Mstislav Rostropovich, the 24 Preludes for cello were actually never performed by their esteemed dedicatee; although written in 1968, the first performance only came in 1995 in Tallinn, Estonia, by Yosif Feigelson, who has recorded the cycle for Naxos (there is also a performance by Emil Rovner available on the Divox label). It is a shame Rostropovich never played them, as Weinberg’s score specifically quotes from and refers to works that were associated with or written for Slava: Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, unmistakably in Prelude No.21, and his Cello Sonata, Boris Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto, the Schumann Cello Concerto. Folksong, too, turns up (“Kamarinskaya” in No. 8) as does folkish song (Jakov Feldman’s 1915 gypsy “Russische Romanze” Kutscher, Treib die Pferde nicht appears transformed into a sarabande in No. 18). Violinist Gidon Kremer, who also enjoys a huge reputation, sees them as a major cycle and transcribed them for violin, presumably to give them a wider audience. He states that he hopes “that these personal statements of one of the most wonderful composers of the twentieth century will inspire listeners to fall in love with his music.” Some of the pieces needed to be moved in tonality but Kremer’s intent is to remain as close as possible to the original.

There is a sense of historical continuity in this arrangement by this particular performer: Kremer’s teacher, David Oistrakh, was playing in the same concert in October 1953 in which Weinberg was arrested. While one may state that the cycle moves through the scale in ascending and then descending semitones (modelling Bach’s “Well-Tempered”), it is true the sense of key is often very much destabilised, often hidden. In fact, No.23 is based on a tone-row; Weinberg links the Preludes by making the last note of each Prelude the first note of the next.

It needs a player of Kremer’s stature to cope with the demands of No. 6, with its perilous spreads and leaps, while the tenebrous seventh, an ethereal shadow (perhaps a ghost of a memory) reveals just how much a sense of atmosphere Kremer can conjure up. Perhaps Weinberg’s achievement is to conjure up worlds in a matter of short minutes: No.11, sad and, in its textures, deliberately strange, invoking an unspecified other, lasts only 1:56. The ethereal No.14 is a particular highpoint, particularly given Kremer’s ease up in the violin’s stratosphere. He captures the outgoing rhythms of No.16 brilliantly, while the brightness of the disjunct gestures of No. 19, always perfectly in tune (those gestures separated by scurrying passagework simply brilliantly delivered by Kremer) results in one of the most viscerally exciting experiences of the set. It sits in high contrast to No.20, which begins like a funeral cortège. Kremer’s virtuosity is on full display in this cycle, but it is in the absolute resonance with Weinberg’s language with which Kremer's speaks that marks this out.

The presentation itself is astonishingly potent from the Soviet-era black-and-white car (and rain) photo on the front to the many illustrations inside. A full explanatory note from Kremer himself (excerpted above) plus detailed notes from Verena Mogl complete a most satisfying release. The editors have found an intriguing way of delineating paragraphs, incidentally: the first line has no indent but the final line is centred.

Ideally of course one should own both cello and violin versions, and the Naxos is something of a no-brainer given that Feigelson gave that 1985 premiere in Estonia; his playing is wonderful, too. Listen to his folkish evocations in No.22 (he gives that Prelude more space than does Kremer); his disc also includes the 14-minute Weinberg First Solo Cello Sonata.

Colin Clarke

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