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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Volume 1
String Quartet No. 7 in C major, Op. 59 (1957) [24.55]
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 18 (1944) [44.36]
Silesian Quartet
Piotr Sałajczyk (piano)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
ACCORD ACD239-2 [69.37]

Volume 2
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 66 (1959) [15.23]
String Quartet No. 9 in F sharp minor, Op. 80 (1963) [27.41]
String Quartet No. 10 in A minor, Op. 85 (1965) [22.51]
Silesian Quartet
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
ACCORD ACD241-2 [66.11]

Volume 3
String Quartet No. 11, Op. 89 (1965) [19.56]
String Quartet No. 12, Op. 103 (1969-70) [28.50]
String Quartet No. 13, Op. 118 (1977) [13.32]
Silesian Quartet
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
ACCORD ACD250-2 [62.33]

Mieczysław WEINBERG 
Piano Trio, Op. 24 (1945) [28.53]
Aleksander TANSMAN (1897-1986) 
Trio for piano, violin and cello (1938) [18.45]
Andrzej CZAJKOWSKI (André TCHAIKOWSKY) (1935-1982)
Trio notturno, Op. 6 (1978) [18.48]
Wajnberg Trio
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
ACCORD ACD247-2 [66.36]

Released in 2016 on the Accord label, the CD of Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 7 and Piano Quintet from the Silesian Quartet commenced a seven CD series to be completed in 2019, the centenary year of Mieczysław Weinberg’s birth. Also received for review around the same time from Accord have been two further albums of Weinberg’s string quartets, another with his piano trio coupled together with a piano trio each from two other Polish émigré composers Aleksander Tansman and Andrzej Czajkowski (more commonly known as André Tchaikowsky).

Interest in the music of the Polish-born Soviet composer has seriously increased over the last decade or so; there has been a significant number of Weinberg recordings in the lead up to his centenary year. It felt almost inevitable that music of such quality would rise from its relative obscurity and start receiving the attention It deserves. The Bregenz Festival in 2010 was notable in that it headlined a ‘Weinberg Retrospective’ and gave the fully staged première of his Holocaust opera ‘The Passenger’ directed by David Pountney, who was then the festival’s music director. I noticed that Pountney has described Weinberg as the “third man” after the great Soviet composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The Bregenz Festival featured a number of other Weinberg scores, including his Gogol opera ‘The Portrait’ directed by John Fulljames. Continuing the work of the late Swedish academic Par Skans, David Fanning’s recent book Mieczysław Weinberg - ‘In Search of Freedom’ has undoubtedly increased awareness and further widened knowledge of this talented and fascinating composer, and I have been told that Fanning has a more substantial study in progress. Incidentally, the Polish Accord label use the spelling Wajnberg on its releases and it is spelled Vainberg in Russia, but Weinberg is the commonly accepted spelling these days, as used by David Fanning in his authoritative biography of the composer, so hopefully the publication of Fanning’s books will result in a standard spelling.

It was Shostakovich who invited Weinberg to Moscow, and they developed a close friendship. While Weinberg was never actually a pupil of Shostakovich, he did acknowledge the relevance of Shostakovich’s school as “fundamental” to his composing. The music of both composers bears testament to the often harrowing nature of that epoch in Soviet Russian politics. The twenty-two symphonies from Weinberg’s oeuvre attract the lion’s share of attention, but clearly chamber music also appealed to him and he composed approaching sixty works for that genre, thirteen of which were written during the Second World War. He was particularly interested in the medium of the string quartet and he wrote seventeen. His complete string quartets have already been recorded to considerable acclaim by the Quatuor Danel between 2006/09 at the Studio Stolbergenstrasse, Cologne for the CPO label. The chamber sonata was another form that Weinberg clearly relished; he wrote some twenty-four including six for violin and piano, four for solo cello and four for solo viola, and this number does not include his half dozen solo piano sonatas and sonatina. The similarities between the music of Weinberg and his friend Shostakovich, especially in the chamber field, are often discussed.

The first volume of the string quartets includes the Seventh Quartet, a work composed some eleven years after the Sixth Quartet. In three movements, it was written in the winter of 1957, the same year he completed his Fourth Symphony and symphonic poem Dawn. The C major score was dedicated to his friend, fellow Soviet composer Yury Levitin and premièred in Moscow by the Borodin Quartet. Evidently the Allegretto movement was sometimes used by the Borodin Quartet for its encores.

The performers here are the Polish-based Silesian Quartet founded in 1978 by the graduates of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, comprising of Szymon Krzeszowiec (leader), Arkadiusz Kubica (violin II), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola) and Piotr Janosik (cello) and the same line-up is maintained in volumes two and three.

The Seventh opens with a dispiriting Adagio which is imbued with bleak melancholy, a movement that has been described as a “lament.” Weinberg ensures that the writing is directionless, swirling around without purpose. The central movement Allegretto is a Scherzo containing references to Shostakovich with quasi-dance rhythms that aren’t joyous and uplifting but feel mournful and forced. Taking here twelve minutes to perform, around as long as the previous two movements put together, the Finale contains a searching quality of a distinctly discomforting quality. The level of concentration and intensity of emotion the Silesian Quartet gives to the Seventh are impressive; one can easily imagine that its disconcerting level of melancholy reflects Weinberg’s state of mind.
The album also contains the earlier five movement Piano Quintet. A substantial wartime work, it was written in 1944 between his First and Second Symphonies. During this period, Weinberg showed considerable interest in chamber music and it was a time of great upheaval for the composer. Tellingly, the previous year Weinberg, at Shostakovich’s invitation, moved from Tashkent to Moscow. He was worried about his family back in war-torn Warsaw, as the fortunes of the Soviet Red Army fortunes were improving and it was advancing towards Germany. In 1945, pianist Emil Gilels and the Bolshoi String Quartet introduced the work in Moscow. Joining the Silesian for the Quintet is pianist Piotr Sałajczyk a graduate of the same Katowice academy, who plays compellingly throughout, communicating powerful levels of expression. A highlight in the Quintet is the opening movement Moderato con moto that varies in tempi from the brisk and upbeat to the achromatic gloom of a rather plodding tread. The unnerving Allegretto has an eerie, rather acrid mood followed by the Presto which feels gaudy and bumptious. At almost sixteen here, the substantial Largo exudes an effectively dispiriting atmosphere of bleakness.

The second volume comprises the String Quartets Eight, Nine and Ten, all minor key works. These quartets were composed over a five-year span between 1959 to 1965 a productive period that also included the Symphonies Five, Six, Seven and EightPolish Flowers’.

From 1959 the Eighth Quartet, cast in a single movement of discernible sections, is a relatively short work taking some fifteen minutes here to perform. It was dedicated to the Borodin Quartet who that same year gave the première in Moscow. Written in the same year as the Violin Concerto, its discernibly Jewish and Polish themes have been commented upon. I understand that for many years, of his quartets the Eighth was the one most commonly encountered in the West. Extremely characteristic of Weinberg, it commences with a searching and yearning that is imbued with a dispiriting bleakness. By contrast, the playing of the central section in the manner of an oberek, a jolly Polish dance, is given a fascinating mocking aspect here. 

The Ninth Quartet is cast in the traditional four movement classical form and was composed in 1963 the same year as the Symphony No. 6 for boys’ choir and orchestra. Once again, it was the Borodin Quartet who introduced the score in 1964 in Moscow. The playing of the opening Allegro stands out with its intensity and extremely restless quality. Taking almost ten minutes, the Andante returns to Weinberg’s characteristic sense of yearning and barrenness. The Finale: Allegretto is striking, too, the players revelling in the intense display of contrasting strands.

Written in 1965, the Tenth Quartet also uses the four-movement classical model. This was the year Weinberg was concentrating on cantatas, song cycles and a Requiem. Dedicated to the composer’s second wife Olga Rakhalskaya, the score was consigned to a drawer and had to wait six years for its première which was given in Moscow by the Glinka Quartet. In fact, by the time the Tenth received its première, the Eleventh had already been performed four years earlier. In the opening movement of the Tenth, an Adagio, the composer’s distinctive searching and bleakness is palpable. Conspicuous in the Allegro is the variety of short and impactful motifs that just flick by, while the effect of the Finale, an Allegretto which suggests a haunted waltz, is marked.

The third volume contains the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets, works written between 1965 and 1977. The Eleventh Quartet written in 1965, the same year as the Tenth, is dedicated to Victoria Weinberg the composer’s eldest daughter. Said to show influences of the six Bartók quartets (1908-39), the Eleventh is designed in four-movements and was premièred by the Borodin Quartet in 1967 in Moscow. One of my favourite Weinberg quartet movements is the opening Allegro assai which is mesmerisingly rhythmic and restless, yet not without a sense of optimism. Here, leader Szymon Krzeszowiec’s part is said to evoke a Jewish fiddler. Standing out is the short Allegretto, a pleasing and memorable movement mainly owing to an ostinato which reminds me of one of Shostakovich’s personal motifs.

The Twelfth Quartet was completed in 1970 and similarly uses the four-movement form. A productive year Weinberg completed his Symphony No. 11Festive Symphony’ for mixed choir and orchestra, the Clarinet Concerto and was writing his opera The Madonna and the Soldier. Soviet composer Veniamin Basner is the score’s dedicatee. It was introduced in 1971 in Moscow by the String Quartet of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Evidently Weinberg first used twelve-tone components in 1967 in his opera ‘The Passenger’. A short time later, in the opening movement Largo of the Twelfth, Weinberg is again trying out twelve-tone elements. Dense, cold, desolate and so typical of Weinberg, the Largo evokes an unforgiving landscape with a slight eerie undertone. By way of contrast, a central section contains brisk, rather frenetic writing. 

There was a seven-year gap between the Twelfth and the Thirteenth Quartet, which was composed in 1977, the same year as his Symphonies No’s 14 and 15I Believe in This Earth’ for soprano, baritone, male choir and orchestra. In a single movement with four distinct sections and Coda, the score takes here a mere thirteen and a half minutes in performance. The Borodin Quartet is the dedicatee of the score, but I have no details of the première.  This is a work predominantly containing an intense and near unrelenting quality of dark and anguished brooding that can easily become wearing on the nerves.

Throughout the quartets, the Silesian displays its undoubted fondness for this music in what feels like a journey of exploration. It provides unaffected playing with a pleasing level of precision, and is able to generate high levels of intensity that is so important in these works. These three volumes of the Weinberg String Quartets were recorded in the Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice. Pleasingly consistent, the sound quality is cool and clear with a satisfying balance. In each volume the respective booklet essay is written by Danuta Gwizdalanka, and provides a helpful level of information.

The fourth Accord release contains a piano trio from Weinberg and each of his Polish contemporaries Aleksander Tansman and Andrzej Czajkowski (aka André Tchaikowsky). Formed in 2016 the Wajnberg Trio comprises of Piotr Sałajczyk (piano), Szymon Krzeszowiec (violin) and Arkadiusz Dobrowolski (cello). The trio’s name uses the standard Polish spelling.

Weinberg’s Trio for violin, cello and piano from 1945 appears in his works list between the Fourth and Fifth Quartets from the same year and was written while he was working on his Second Symphony. Weinberg dedicated this score to his first wife Nataliya Vovsi-Mikhoels (daughter of actor Solomon Mikhoels). This trio has four-movements, each given a title; it opens with great angst and closes with extreme bleakness. The trio was written while the war was drawing to an end, so its disposition probably reflects Weinberg’s state of mind, as he still did not know the fate of his family back in Poland. Showing its mettle here, the Wajnberg Trio excels in this writing of extreme emotional power. Notable in the opening movement Prelude and Aria are its sections of a percussive nature, expressing anger. In the Toccata convincing is the near-frenzied state of nervous energy as if running away at top speed. I especially enjoy the Poem which develops to reflect a sense of total bleakness and a near-static feeling of desolation. The switch at 5.37-5.53 reminds me of a fusion of Latin-American rhythms with the feeling of Klezmer music, then it dies away to return to the sense of bleakness and misery.

Like Weinberg, Aleksander Tansman was a Polish born composer of Jewish origin. Born in Lodz (now part of Poland), after his studies he moved to Paris in 1919, lived in the USA during WW2, then returned to Paris. The 1938 Trio for piano, violin and cello was written around the same time as his opera La Toison d’or (The Golden Fleece). The booklet notes state that this is the world première recording. Cast in four movements, the Trio takes approaching nineteen minutes to perform. Certainly worth hearing, the score is rather more optimistic than Weinberg’s trio but it’s certainly not all sunshine and smiles. The opening movement, entitled Introduction and Allegro, is striking; it breathes confidence, although one senses there is an element of searching for direction. From 2.20, the music becomes upbeat and dance-like. The Scherzo glitters and blazes by with such energy that it reminds me somewhat of Bartók. The score ends in a downbeat manner with the players producing a Finale that is intense and anxiety-laden.

Andrzej Czajkowski was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer but is more usually known as André Tchaikowsky. Although a composer, Tchaikowsky was a renowned concert pianist on the international stage and made a number of recordings. A Warsaw-born Jew, Krauthammer was smuggled out of the Ghetto by his grandmother and went in to hiding. To hide his Jewish ancestry, Czajkowski was the surname given to him as an alias by his grandmother on his forged identity papers. Later, he adopted the name André Tchaikowsky and settled for the last twenty or so years of his life in London. Today, he is best known for his Shakespearian opera The Merchant of Venice (1968-82) premièred at the 2017 Bregenz Festival directed by Keith Warner. Tchaikowsky’s Trio notturno for piano, violin and cello from 1978 is a two-movement score, dedicated to Hans Keller, and was introduced shortly after the composer’s death in 1982. Similar in length to the Tansman, this Trio at just under nineteen minutes is also specified in the notes as being the world première recording. My favourite of the three trios on the album is Tchaikowsky’s Trio notturno. Not without reason, the influence of Berg in the Trio notturno has been mentioned for its origins in Viennese Expressionism, from which it definitely benefits. Exceptionally, the opening movement feels like a depiction of psychological turmoil or drama contrasted with a less dense central passage. Marked Andante tranquillo, the second movement has an emotional expression that alters in tension. It’s uneasy and rather austere writing with a steely beauty.

The Wajnberg Trio is insightful and well-prepared throughout, surmounting the technical difficulties of the three scores with a sense of total commitment. Produced at Concert Hall of Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice the recording has the benefit of a cool, clear sound and is satisfyingly balanced. The author of the informative booklet essay is Marcin Trzęsiok. 

In the centenary year of his birth these four albums of chamber music unquestionably demonstrate the quality of Weinberg’s music. If I were to choose a single album it would be volume one containing the Seventh Quartet and Piano Quintet. In truth, all three volumes of the string quartets are worth obtaining and I prefer them to the cycle of recordings by the Quatuor Danel on CPO.

Michael Cookson 

Previous reviews: Stuart Sillitoe (Vol. 2) ~ Stephen Greenbank (trios)



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