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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Symphony no. 6 for Boys’ Choir and Orchestra, op. 79 (1962-63) [47:20]
21 Easy Pieces for Solo Piano, op. 34 (1946) [19:58]
Elisaveta Blumina (piano)
Konzertchor Rutheneum
Philharmonisches Orchester Altenburg Gera/Laurent Wagner
Rec. January 2019, Altenburg Gera
KLANGLOGO KL1532 [65:30]

“…..the issue of war is something which has been imposed on me by my own fate and the tragic fate of my family. I consider it my moral duty to write about war and about the appalling things which have befallen people in our century." So wrote Miecysław Weinberg, and it is hard to imagine a work that better bears out that statement than the 6th Symphony.
Its five movements consist of two purely orchestral (the first and third), and three with a unison boys choir. The finale refers back to the opening, so there is a feeling of three central movements plus a prelude and a postlude.

Much – probably too much - is made of Weinberg’s close association with Shostakovich. Yes, they were friends, and yes, Weinberg owed the older composer a great debt for supporting him when, as a ‘foreigner’ arriving in Soviet Russia, he was terribly vulnerable, and found it so hard to get his works performed. But, though it is easy to spot the influence of Shostakovich in certain aspects and details, Weinberg has his own strong identity as a creative artist.

The first movement of the symphony unfolds in a leisurely way, and we encounter musical ideas that create a bleak landscape; a simple motif for solo horn, a wandering violin line, developed as a free fugato. Slowly the tension rises, eventually dissipating in a solo flute cadenza.

The second movement sets a poignant poem by Lew Kwitko, ‘The Little Violin’. Kwitko wrote this in Yiddish, and a problem now arises; the booklet gives us German and English, but no originals, which makes it very difficult, nay virtually impossible, to follow the word setting in detail. But the boys of the Rutheneum Konzertchor are quite wonderful. Yes, it’s all unison singing, nothing complex. Yet they phrase and articulate the lovely musical lines so perfectly that the delicate combination of pathos and childish humour is caught perfectly.

The third movement, Allegro molto, is a scherzo that begins like a wild folk dance, but gradually disintegrates into a violently drunken fury.

A screaming trill then leads us, by way of lurid brass and percussion, into the profound core of the work – the Largo setting of Schmuel Halkin’s devastating poem ‘A trench is dug in red clay’. The simplicity of the boys’ melodic lines in the context of the desperate groping of the instrumental parts is emotionally overwhelming, and reminds us that this music, commemorating the Babi Yar massacre of 1941, was premiered in the wake of Shostakovich’s thirteenth symphony, which is entirely concerned with the same tragedy.

Some commentators have been critical of the final movement, Andantino, feeling it is on a lower level than the rest of the work. I disagree; yes, the emotional temperature is lowered after the traumas of the previous two movements. Yet the references back to the first movement give the work a sense of historical perspective, a sense of terrible pain which, though still present, has to be lived with, and from which lessons have been learned.

The Sixth is a great symphony, and the more so for being unlike any other symphony I can think of. Laurent Wagner and his forces, especially the boys of the Konzertchor Rutheneum, have projected all the aspects of the work superbly, even if there are some passing deficiencies in the orchestral playing (intonation in the upper woodwind is occasionally sour).

The Easy Pieces for piano which follow make an inspired ‘filler’ to the disc. They are played with brilliant characterisation by Elisaveta Blumina, and are a perfect demonstration of how a composer as gifted as Weinberg, who can create large symphonic canvasses, can yet think on a tiny musical scale – only five of these twenty-six delightful miniatures last more than one minute!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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