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Weinberg cello EPRC0045
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Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919–1996)
Cello Concertino, Op. 43bis (1948) [16:34]
Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 52 (1951–1953) [17:40]
Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 (1992) [34:07]
Pieter Wispelwey (cello)
Jean-Michel Charlier (clarinet)
Les Métamorphoses/Raphaël Faye
rec. 28 June - 1 July 2021; Muziekcentrum de Biljoke, Ghent, Belgium

Alexander Ivashkin once wrote of the dread that he and his contemporaries felt in the final decades of the Soviet Union for those composers they deemed imitators of Dmitri Shostakovich, specifically naming Mieczysław Weinberg among those who “drew their pension” by “simply borrow[ing]” the elder composer’s “musical vocabulary, whereby they significantly devalued it.”

“Curiously, Shostakovich himself rated the music of all these composers highly—because he saw in them a great deal in common with his own works,” Ivashkin continued. “It probably seemed to him that the future development of music ought to lie in that direction (a delusion typical of many composers). In actual fact, these works only served to kill off Shostakovich’s music, to cover it with a scab of numerous and bad copies.”

For all the overwhelming emotional urgency in Weinberg’s music - sometimes boiling over into a vehemence that the traditional musical forms the composer prefers seem barely adequate to convey, let alone contain - it is hard for me not to agree with Ivashkin. Even at his best, Weinberg sounds (to me, at least) like AI-generated Shostakovich; or, putting it another way, an overly emotional assemblage derived from various parts of the elder composer’s style, but with none of his presiding genius to invest the whole with life. Is emoting alone enough to make great music?

Pieter Wispelwey, the thinking man’s reigning virtuoso cellist of today and one of Weinberg’s ever-growing number of supporters, seems to believe so. Playing with utmost sympathy for this music’s narrow stylistic range, he makes as charismatic a plea as can be hoped for in his latest disc. The program begins with some of the composer’s concertante works for cello and concludes with his final score, the Chamber Symphony No. 4.

The disc starts off with the brief Cello Concertino, composed in 1948, but only recently discovered by musicologist Manushir Yakubov. (Weinberg expanded the score nine years later—not always to its benefit—in his Cello Concerto.) It bears more than a passing resemblance (especially in the outer movements) to Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto from four years before, although certain touches, like the “dying of the light” coda echo Shostakovich’s chamber music from the 1940s. It is followed by the Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, a single-movement work that is slightly longer and more varied in mood than the Concertino. Like the preceding work, it begins with cellos and basses playing softly in octaves, giving way to harried dancing, then flickering away into the darkness.

Wispelwey’s leanness of tone plays to the music’s advantage, warding off unintended bathos at Weinberg’s most histrionic moments. His immaculate partners are conductor Raphaël Faye and ensemble Les Métamorphoses, who dig into these scores and groove together with the tightness of a jazz combo.

The latter have the stage to themselves in the final work on this disc, Weinberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 4. The composer’s stylistic consistency is remarkable. Even in his very last score, his language evinces little development from the cello works composed fifty years before. Solo clarinet concertante adds a whiff of pizmonim mingled with klezmer, especially in the finale, but much of the work comprises of riffs and gestures borrowed from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 (specifically “The Suicide” and “The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Sultan of Constantinople”).

Excellent performances with sound to match, then, but not enough to make a believer out of this Weinberg skeptic. Evil Penguin ought to have devoted more space to discussing this music in its liner notes, instead of splashing most of the sizable booklet with photos of the various musicians involved. (Or, better still, recorded the music of superior Soviet composers who unjustly languish in obscurity, in particular Gavriil Popov and Alexander Lokshin, but I digress.)

Néstor Castiglione

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