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Mieczysław WAJNBERG[WEINBERG] (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 8, Op. 66 (1959) [15:23]
String Quartet No. 9, Op. 80 (1963) [27:41]
String Quartet No. 10, Op. 85 (1965) [22:51]
Silesian Quartet
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD241-2 [66:11]

Mieczysław Wajnberg was born on 8 December 1919 in Warsaw. There is some confusion about his family name, here written in the Polish style. It is also spelled Vainberg, Vaynberg and (most commonly now) Weinberg, and his given name also appears as Moishe and Moisei. Those various transliterations reflect changes in his life after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, when he fled to the Soviet Union. He met Shostakovich there. The two composers became friends. In 1943, at Shostakovich’s suggestion, Wajnberg moved to Moscow, where the two men worked close to each other. That led to a certain amount of cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Wajnberg composed seventeen numbered string quartets during a fifty-year period. Sadly, I only know a handful of them. My introduction to his music, actually, came through two discs of string quartets on Olympia (OCD 628, 686). Between them, they contain the three quartets recorded here. The Olympia discs are wonderful, especially Quartets 7, 8 and 9 played by the Dominant Quartets, but the 2000 sound is a little dated in comparison with this new recording by the Silesian Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, composed in 1959, was dedicated to the Borodin Quartet, who gave the premiere in November of that year. It is cast in one single movement on a single multi-faceted track (the six sections are divided into two movements on the Olympia recording). As with a lot of the composer’s postwar work, it represents the anguish and pain of loss. A Jew, he lost family and friends at the hands of the Nazis. His mother, father and sister remained in Warsaw, and were to meet their fate after they were transported to the Trawniki death camp. This is a strong work, mainly slow but powerful, with a sense forward momentum.

The String Quartet No. 9 in F sharp minor, composed some four years later, is the longest of the three quartets here. The four distinct movements are played attaca without any breaks, giving the feel of an extended single-movement work. Again, this work can be seen as semi-autobiographical, informed by childhood musical memories. As the previous quartet, it has a slower sections which contain the more emotional music. The work also reflects the growing friendship between the composer and Shostakovich in the way that elements of the music could easily fit into Wajnberg’s friend’s quartets.

The Tenth Quartet, completed before the 9th, received its premiere in 1965. It begins unusually with an emotional and almost meditative Adagio in the home key of A minor. This movement was originally designated as an ‘Aria’. The almost mournful music again represents the angst of the composer’s past, as it gradually becomes quieter towards the movement’s conclusion. This is strongly contrasted by the abrupt opening of the scherzo-like Allegro second movement with its pizzicato and its brilliant ensemble playing. The Silesian Quartet really come to the fore here. This is followed by another slow Adagio movement. It takes its theme from the opening of the first movement, but rather than developing it into a set of variations, Wajnberg brilliantly expands and develops the music. He will do it again in the final movement, when he takes themes from the previous movements and weaves them into a waltz-like movement.

This is an extremely fine disc. The Silesian Quartet give a powerful and forceful performance. Their sense of ensemble is excellent even in the more difficult passages, and they prove that they are more than a match for any other quartet in this music. They choose tempi that accentuate their performance and the music. The result is a winning performance that eclipses both the Dominant Quartet (8 & 9) and the Gothenburg Quartet (10), and not just because of the improved sound. I know the complete string quartets performed by the Quatuor Danel on CPO (777 913-2), but it has been a long time since I listened to it. From what I can remember, the performance of the Silesian Quartet is at least as good. They are helped by excellent sound and informative booklet notes. This is a most welcome release.

Stuart Sillitoe

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