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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No 2 in G major, Op 3/145 (1930-40 rev. 1987) [26:05]
String Quartet No 5 in B-flat major, Op 27 (1945) [26:30]
String Quartet No 8 in C major, Op 66 (1959) [15:29]
Arcadia Quartet
rec. 4-6 March 2020, Potten Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20158 [68:24]

Along with the quartets of his friend Dmitri Shostakovich, the seventeen string quartets of Mieczysław Weinberg make up the greatest body of works in the genre during the Soviet era, as well as some of the most important quartet compositions of the twentieth century. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg composed his quartets over the best part of his life beginning while still a student in Minsk in 1937; his final quartet was composed some fifty years later in 1987. Over the last few years, Weinberg’s music has been receiving greater recognition; this present issue follows in the footsteps of the Silesian Quartet who have so far released three volumes of their proposed cycle (ACD239-2, ACD241-2, ACD250-2). The much-acclaimed complete cycle of the quartets by the Quatuor Danel on CPO, seems now to be available only as a box set (777 313-2) or as downloads of the original discs, but it was through the cycle of his quartets on the Olympia label, now long deleted, that I came to appreciate this wonderful music, and indeed I still have two volumes by the Gothenburg and Dominant Quartets (OCD 628; OCD 686) from that set, which have given me great pleasure over the years. It is all the more pleasing, therefore, to be heralding a proposed knew cycle, especially as the opening volume shows great promise.

The first time I heard this disc – or at least part of it - was when it was featured as Record of the Week on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review, and even then I could hear that this was a recording to savour, an impression which has only been reinforced by repeated listening to the disc. This is a wonderful introduction to three of Weinberg’s string quartets. String Quartet No 2, was composed whilst he was still a student; as the work of a twenty-year-old it shows great promise, pointing the way forward to what was to follow. Beginning quietly, the first the opening Allegro has the feeling of a neo-classical serenade, something which David Fanning discusses in his excellent booklet notes, but it is also shot through with the anguish of not knowing what had happened to the dedicatees of the work, his mother and sister, of whose fate, at that time, he had had no news - although thankfully they survived the German occupation of Poland during World War 2. This sense of trepidation is never far away throughout the whole work in the brooding quality of the Andante second movement and in the anguish coming to a head in the agitated concluding Presto. It is suggested that Weinberg knew Shostakovich by this time and had shown him the manuscript of this quartet, which was to provide the impetus for the great composer to write his own Second Quartet and would lead to cross-fertilisation in both composers’ music. In this new recording the Arcadia Quartet compare well with the Quatuor Danel (777 587-2), with their marginally quicker tempos giving a greater sense of agitation.

The String Quartet No 5 was composed in 1945, some five years after No 2 and is the only Weinberg that I have heard live performed in a wonderful concert by a student quartet. It was premiered in 1947 by the Beethoven Quartet, to whom it is dedicated, and is perhaps one of the composers best known works, the famous sparkling Scherzo being rightfully famous. It was something of a departure in that it was the first time he gave the movements descriptive titles and not just time signatures; this is a further example of the growing friendship with Shostakovich and his influence on Weinberg’s music. The first movement is entitled Melodie. Andante sostenuto, a sparsely textured melancholy slow movement which begins quietly and gradually builds in intensity without ever getting too loud. This is followed by another slow movement, Humoreske. Andantino; indeed, slow music dominates this work, despite the short central Scherzo. Allegro molto third movement, which receives a wonderfully energetic performance and is, I think, preferable to my downloaded recording by the Quatuor Danel (777 394-2 Vol. 4). Weinberg would later rework the Scherzo for his Chamber Symphony No 3, but I must say that the original is better. For the fourth movement Improvisation. Lento, we once again return to slow music in which the first violin takes the lead with a sombre opening melody. The final movement, Serenade. Moderato con moto – Pochissimo pił mosso – Allegro – Andante sostenuto, gradually builds from slow melodic material through various phases in intensity and tempo until we get to the short and almost frenzied Allegro section, before returning to the dominant slow movement.

The final quartet here is No 8 in C major, a single movement work dedicated to the Borodin Quartet, who gave the premiere performance in November 1959 and made the first recording two years later. Despite being in a single movement, it is divided into three distinct sections, and here - unlike the Quatuor Danel’s or the Silesian Quartet’s recordings - each section has been given its own track number which helps to separate the thematic material. The first section is marked Adagio – Andante – Adagio – with the solemn melody forming an introduction to the main thematic material of the first section that appears in the Andante, a theme that Weinberg held in high regard as he would go on to employ it in his opera The Idiot as well as his Symphony No 22. The quicker second section, Allegretto – Allegro – Allegretto – with its own main theme being derived from that of the Andante. This leads into an inspired second theme before leading into a brisk almost terse Allegro. The final section is marked Doppio pił lento – Andante and returns in an almost cyclical manner to the main theme of the opening Andante before Weinberg takes all the main thematic material and melds them into a wonderful coda which concludes the work perfectly.

As with their excellent recording of the complete Bartók String Quartet’s (CHAN 10992(2)), the Arcadia Quartet add a short note to David Fanning’s excellent booklet essay, recounting how they “felt instantly captivated by the wonderful music, the deeply inspired melodies and perfectly shaped melodies” and going on to talk of their joy in performing it. This joy comes through clearly in their performance; their enthusiasm for this music is clear to hear in their strongly articulated, nuanced and inspired playing. Their performance explores the wide-ranging dynamics of Weinberg’s music while displaying their admiration for it. If they are new to Weinberg’s music, it does not show in their detailed and well measured performance which gives the listener great hope for the coming volumes in the series. If you do not know Weinberg, this recording is a good place to start, and with a performance like this by the Arcadia Quartet you cannot go wrong.

Stuart Sillitoe 

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