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100th birthday of Mieczyslaw Weinberg on December 8, 2019.
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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet No.14, Op.122 (1978) [21.53]
Three Palms for soprano and string quartet, Op.120 (1977) [21.05]
String Quartet No.15, Op.124 (1979) [24.32]
Joanna Freszel (soprano)
Silesian Quartet
rec. 2019, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD268-2 [67.38]

This is a particularly rewarding release, Volume 4 in the Silesian Quartet’s series of what I hope will be a complete set of Weinberg’s quartets. This would, I suspect, become the benchmark against which future accounts will be measured, despite the admirable qualities of the recent complete set by Quatuor Danel (cpo 777 913-2), which contains the numbered quartets, but not the fascinating Three Palms, included here. In general, the Danels are a little more expansive than the Silesian Quartet, but the latter gains in the power of concentration.

One problem in judging Weinberg is that most music lovers are still coming to an overview of the shape of his musical genius. New recordings necessarily are explorations for both participants and listeners. Few will have heard all the symphonies, for example, but to do so would be to have a better sense of how individual works are to be understood within the overall arc of his creative life. Norman Lebrecht, in his 1992 Companion to Twentieth Century Music, has no mention of Weinberg, in any of his variant spellings (the Accord releases prefer Wajnberg, as the Polish usage), yet has become a doughty advocate of his music in subsequent years. The early symphonies are, generally, more lyrical than the tougher-textured later ones, though this statement seems oversimple.

A similar trajectory apparent in the quartets. The 1970’s were not especially happy years for Weinberg: his music was less often performed, Shostakovich died in 1975, and one senses other kinds of inner turmoil. Quartet No. 14, in five movements, each indicated by a metronome marking rather than a description, leaves an overwhelming impression of sadness, despite some liveliness in patches, and is consciously a lament for Shostakovich, whose famous motif appears more than once in the final movement. Also, the reduced two- and three- part writing is reminiscent of Shostakovich’s way with the quartet. But, make no mistake, this quartet is not pastiche, but has the voice of an independent mind.

The 15th Quartet is perhaps more harmonically daring, flirting with dissonance and atonality. Expression is terse: eight of the nine movements last less than four minutes, most very much less. Again, only metronome markings are given for each movement. There are hints of Bartók, perhaps more of Schnittke. The description that springs to mind most often is ‘laconic’.

Three Palms, for Soprano and String Quartet, based on a famous poem by Lermontov, is the tale of three palms trees in the desert. At first, they lament their loneliness, at last finding themselves welcoming a caravan to their shade, only to be cut down by the nomads. It is a poem that can be interpreted at many levels, as a reflection on isolation, transience and existence, or again as an overwhelming mirror to sadness and melancholy. Weinberg, I think, takes the latter path. There are hints of Schoenberg, but there is a beauty behind the bleakness, lovingly rendered by Joanna Freszel – a most impressive performance.
 
Anyone familiar with the 2017 recording of the complete quartets of Grażyna Bacewicz, a release much awarded, or the subsequent one of her Quartets and Quintets will recognise the sterling quality of the Silesian Quartet, with a sound which is muscular, authoritative, stern when necessary, but with an acute sense of detail and poetry when appropriate.

Recording quality is very fine, capturing detail very well. Notes, by Danuta Gwizdalanka, are a model of their kind, and provided in both Polish and English. Texts of the Lermontov are provided in Russian, Polish and English.

Michael Wilkinson



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