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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Piano Quintet, Op. 18 [44:29]
Children’s Notebook No. 3, Op. 23 [13:36]
Elisaveta Blumina (piano); Noah Bendix-Balgley (violin); Shanshan Yao (violin); Máté Szücs (viola); Bruno Delepelaire (cello)
rec. February 2020, RBB Saal 1 Berlin, Germany
OEHMS OC487 [58:07]

Some of the CDs I’ve had the great pleasure of reviewing over the years, have introduced composers whose names were hitherto unknown to me as was their music. On the other hand, it is always a delight to review a disc by a composer whose name is familiar, yet whose music you’ve yet to discover.

Such is the case with a new release on the enterprising German label, Oehms Classics, featuring a selection of two early works by Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, comprising his piano quintet and part of the Children’s Notebooks which he wrote during the last two years of the Second World War. Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919, and fled to Moscow in 1939, where he made friends with Shostakovich, who provided Weinberg with continuous support. His output includes twenty-two symphonies, seventeen string quartets and numerous chamber pieces, in addition to two operas. He died in Moscow in 1996.

The Piano Quintet appeared in 1944, when the composer had just completed his First Symphony, and very much reflects his life at the time – his flight from Poland, his immeasurable anguish at losing his family, and, of course, the agony of war itself. It’s an extended work in five movements, and opens with a brooding Moderato con moto. The piano enters over a quietly-undulating accompaniment from the strings, with a meandering melody in single notes, two octaves apart – a texture that immediately reminds one of Shostakovich in his own Quintet, and which then goes on to receive lusher treatment, when the roles are reversed somewhat.

The informative brochure notes are provided by the pianist, Elisavera Blumina, and there are also extensive biographies of each performer – both in German and English. Blumina asks what is actually Jewish about Weinberg’s music, and her conclusions have a significant bearing on what you will hear as the first movement continues to unfold, and indeed the rest of the tracks on the CD. It is hard to disagree with her, when she says that his music is ‘very tuneful or stresses melody’, rather than setting out to present a distinctly Jewish flavour. Shostakovich achieved a similar effect, because his use of the idiom was equally subtle rather than obvious – so much so that it was sometimes assumed that Shostakovich, like Weinberg, were both of Jewish extraction. The latter was, of course, while Shostakovich was not, but who had a real interest in Judaism. Be that as it may, the spirit of the Russian composer pervades a lot of Weinberg’s writing here, which can range from extremely tonal to somewhat angular and spiky, though essentially within the bounds of tonality.

No sooner has the first movement faded into the distance, than the Allegretto takes over, a somewhat nebulous movement at times that draws quite extensively on trills from the piano, and pizzicati, and other effects in the strings such as col legno – hitting the strings with the back of the bow. The music is at once calm and measured, only to become extremely passionate and more dissonant a few bars later. Essentially, it has the feel of an eerie, slow and melancholy dance in 6/8, though not a scherzo as such – perhaps something along the lines of an intermezzo movement, in a work with more than the conventional four movements. Eventually, though, calmness prevails, leading to a most glorious ending featuring nothing more than a shimmering major chord – as if a disturbed night’s sleep only resolves, when the first rays of dawn appear.

If there is a scherzo proper, then it’s the ensuing Presto, which opens in duple time, before luxuriating in a wonderful characterization of a Viennese waltz which, as a listener once commented, ‘is like Shostakovich, but only better!’ I feel that this comment is, in fact, perfectly justified, if not so much to suggest any musical hierarchy between the two composers, but to acknowledge that here was Weinberg paying his Russian colleague an enormous compliment, by way of imitation, and producing a single tour de force masterpiece along the way. Incidentally, Weinberg also makes some use of the tango in this eclectic, and wholly effective movement.

The slow Largo that follows, is not only the longest movement of the Piano Quintet by far, as well as the longest single track on the whole CD. It opens in loud, dramatic octaves on piano and strings, and certainly reveals the composer’s ethnic origins, in a similar way as ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmu˙le’, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition exudes its strongly-Yiddish character. It’s nearly two minutes before the octaves turn into full, rich chords, over which the first violin presents a chant-like melody. Then, quite out of the blue, the piano introduces a calmer section, which is still highly emotionally-charged. Later, the bold, octaves of the opening are heard again, though on this occasion, strings are playing pizzicato, so the resulting timbre is far less strident, as the music moves gently towards its hushed closing-chords.

The finale is an exciting Allegro agitato, which relies heavily on repeated piano chords at the start. But just as you are beginning to become one with the frenetic writing, quite out of the blue, Weinberg introduces (ca. 1:17” into the movement), what sounds unequivocally like a jaunty Irish jig on the violin, possibly the last thing you’d expect to hear at this point in the work. Blumina had actually lived in Dublin for some time, so asked Weinberg’s daughter, Victoria, how and why an Irish theme of all things got into the quintet. She replied that her father had great respect for the British Army, regarding them as his liberators. Apparently, though, he wasn’t aware at that time that the Irish in particular had collaborated with the Nazis. Not just content with adding a ‘touch of the Irish’ to his finale, Weinberg then uses it as the subject of a short fugal episode, to great effect. But before we’ve had time to savour the Irish experience, the piano leads off into what seems mightily like a spot of piano boogie-woogie, but the strings soon provide a link back to the aggressive style of the opening. It is then that Weinberg wants to bring back the opening of the finale just one more time, but it now seems that the composer has nothing more on which to comment, and the Quintet – which equally deserves a place alongside Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet on the concert platform – simply dissolves into nothingness, like an unanswered question.

The strings now take a well-earned break, since the rest of the CD is given over to a selection of music for solo piano. During the last two years of WW2, Weinberg wrote three piano albums, which he entitled, Children’s Notebooks. These might have been inspired by similar works by Shostakovich, and written at the same time. But whereas Shostakovich clearly wrote his for children to play – as did Schumann with his Kinderszenen – Weinberg’s pieces make high technical demands on any performer, irrespective of age.
Weinberg’s first two volumes comprise eight short pieces each, but Blumina has chosen to play Children’s Notebook No 3, Op 23, which has only seven. Opening with an Allegro marcato, the writing seems to draw again on the music of Shostakovich, but now with a generous dollop of Prokofiev added. Allegro commodo, which follows, is cast as a gentle lullaby, though where the tempo is a little faster than usual. Once more the presence of Prokofiev can be strongly felt. Moderato is the first piece in a minor key, and is unsurprisingly much darker in character. The melodic, and modal inflexions and essentially drone-like accompaniment, seem reminiscent of Bydlo, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with which it shares a similarly exotic Eastern flavour.

Prestissimo is a virtuosic little number, but which hardly manages to get out of first gear for all of its sixty-five seconds. Allegretto quasi andantino returns to the world of Shostakovich, who could always manage to come up with a good tune when needed. Weinberg’s offering could easily double up as a Prelude to partner a suitable Fugue from Shostakovich’s twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, Op 87. As often happens in Weinberg’s writing, a vibrant and dramatic passage is often rounded off by an otherworldly one that simply vanishes into the aether. Lento funebre, as its name confirms, follows the lugubrious gait of a Funeral March, replete with an abundance of dotted rhythms, to provide its slow and measured gait. The CD closes with Andantino semplice, which is rather nocturne-like in character, though here a tad faster than you’d normally encounter. The present one, which also concludes the third book of Children’s Notebooks, again follows Weinberg’s plan, where an understated ending, often in a major key, seems to be one of his preferred dénouements.

This was, then, my first opportunity to listen to an extended chamber work by Mieczysław Weinberg, and while there would have been so many opportunities to comment on the outstanding performance and interpretation along the way, I was so bowled over by the sheer quality and inventiveness of the music, that it almost felt irreverent to want to interrupt the performance at any time, so to speak, especially that of the Piano Quintet.

Russian-born Elisaveta Blumina is generally regarded as one of the best interpreters of music from the twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, especially Weinberg’s, whose re-discovery she doggedly champions. Her supporting artists here – North-Carolina-born violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, Chinese violinist Shanshan Yao, violist Máté Szücs from Hungary, and Parisian cellist Bruno Delepelaire – share total empathy with Blumina, in terms of interpretation, technical issues, and combine impeccably, producing what is a flawless ensemble, allied to a rich and detailed sound stage, which has then been captured on CD with the utmost fidelity.

If, like me, you were unfamiliar with Weinberg, but already have a penchant for Shostakovich, then this new release is the perfect vehicle to get to know the former better. Like me, I’m sure you will be equally as impressed not only by the music, but also the performance – and definitely want to hear more.
Philip R Buttall

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