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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Clarinet Concerto, Op. 104 (1970) [29:26]
Clarinet Sonata, Op. 28 (1945) [20:11]
Chamber Symphony No. 4 for clarinet, triangle, and strings, Op. 153 (1992) [33:07]
Robert Oberaigner (clarinet)
Michael Schöch (piano)
Dresden Chamber Soloists/Michail Jurowski
rec. 2019, Haus der Musik, Innsbruck, Austria; Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
NAXOS 8.574192 [83:08]

The observance of Mieczysław Weinberg’s centenary last year continues apace. While it is indeed encouraging to see this composer receiving the exposure that was long due him, the works on this disc do not in my opinion represent the best that the prolific composer produced. That is not to say that any of the three pieces lack interest. I am sure clarinetists would welcome them all, since there is no overabundance of solo music for this instrument composed in the last or present century.

This generously filled disc contains to my knowledge all of Weinberg’s works for clarinet and represents three distinct periods in the composer’s life. Perhaps as a reflection of the ordeals Weinberg suffered, none of the pieces here is what one could consider light-hearted. Whereas the sonata and concerto provide plenty of virtuosity for the soloists, the clarinet’s role in the symphony is one of obbligato. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 was Weinberg’s last completed work and was premiered only after the composer’s death.

The earliest work, which is placed second on the programme, is the 1945 Clarinet Sonata. It begins with a ruminative theme on the solo clarinet before the piano enters, after which things brighten up with a dance-like theme reminiscent of Shostakovich or Prokofiev. The music becomes more agitated before the melancholy returns. The second movement has a rather catchy, folkish melody that contrasts with the first movement’s pensiveness. The tempo in the middle of the movement broadens and the clarinet’s solo possesses a klezmer-like theme over repeated piano notes and the movement ends quietly on a major chord. The finale begins with Beethovenian loud piano chords creating a powerful impression, while the clarinet does not enter until around 2:20. Even so, the clarinetist gets the limelight later with a long solo passage before the work becomes contemplative and ends again on a major chord.

The Clarinet Concerto is cast in the more traditional fast-slow-fast three-movement structure and, as Richard Whitehouse comments in his detailed liner notes, is “perhaps the most immediately arresting of Weinberg’s works in the genre.” Here the clarinet starts the piece with an imposing theme in its lower register accompanied by pizzicato strings. It is not long before things darken and an atmosphere of loneliness and bleakness take over. This, though, is only temporary with the mood brightening and the music becoming lively with a galloping rhythm. Except for several short passages, the clarinet plays throughout this movement. The slow movement begins with a string threnody that is quite reminiscent of Shostakovich’s string writing, while the clarinet does not enter until after the first minute of music. All is quite bleak, but relief comes only via a lovely viola solo. This relief, however, is short-lived and the movement ends in gloom before a major chord breaks the spell and leads without a break directly to the happier, brighter finale with its perky first theme. The clarinet has a real cadenza after the 6.00 mark that fits in well with the preceding music and continues until the strings conclude the movement on a positive note. I would think the majority of clarinetists would welcome the concerto, though it is by no means on the level of Nielsen’s, and it has received few recordings.

The third work on the disc, the Symphony No. 4, is by some stretch the oddest. Like the others, it is scored for strings. However, here in addition to the obbligato clarinet, there is a triangle part. The triangle plays only four notes in the finale, if in fact you can actually hear them! The clarinet’s role is subservient to the strings, which begin with a mysterious and disquieting theme in the form of a chorale. This goes on for over three minutes before the clarinet enters with a melancholy melody and pizzicato accompaniment. The chorale returns later and the movement ends quietly. The second movement provides a real contrast being loud and agitated with the clarinet strident over pulsating strings. This movement also contains solos by violin, cello, and double bass and is followed directly by a slow movement with the clarinet’s pensive solo over the lower strings. The music builds powerfully to a nearly unbearable climax before quieting down and leading directly into the finale where the clarinet has a folkish, klezmer-like theme that is launched by a triangle stroke. In some ways it reminds me of the clarinet solo in Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes. There is much variety in this fourth movement, the clarinet playing a major role with a prominent cadenza, and the work concludes quietly on a single, triangle note. Overall, I find this the most musically satisfying of the works here.

Robert Oberaigner, principal clarinet of the great Dresden Staatskapelle, is a most distinguished exponent of these Weinberg scores. He has both the technical expertise and the degree of understanding to capture the essence of the music. He is accompanied very well by pianist Michael Schöch in the sonata and the Dresden Chamber Soloists, musicians from the Staatskapelle under Michail Jurowski, in the other pieces. Fine recorded sound contributes to an issue whose programme of all three works is unique in the catalogue. Fans of Weinberg need not hesitate.

Leslie Wright

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