Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op. 2/141 (1937, revised 1985)
String Quartet No. 7 in C major Op. 59 (1957)
String Quartet No. 11 in F major Op. 89 (1965-1966)
rec. 2021, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20174 
This disc is fascinating in that it begins with a window on the past through which we see the composer in formation. Weinberg’s first string quartet, remarkable for one so young, was composed while he still lived in Warsaw. That was before the Nazi onslaught on his country forced him eastwards to the Soviet Union, where he lived for the rest of his life. His greatest influence then was the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, known as ‘the last romantic’. In Moscow, he met and became great friends with Shostakovich, whose influence became of major significance. In fact, Weinberg described his earliest works, including this quartet, as neo-impressionist in style. He said he totally abandoned it once he had become acquainted with the music of Shostakovich.
Symanowski’s influence can be discerned in this piece redolent of the older composer’s neo-romanticism, full of lush harmonies and warmly melodious tunes. Those features, however, are not immediately obvious in the first movement; it is anxious, and seems to embody a struggle to escape these disturbing aspects. The second movement shows that the struggle was successful, and a mood of almost suspended animation pervades, with dreamily floating harmonies to the fore. The third and final movement marked Allegro molto has an energetic drive that was to become firmly established in Weinberg’s string quartet writing, along with some strains of his Jewish heritage woven in. The movement shows the germ of Shostakovian influence that was to become so significant, though this may be due in part to the fact that Weinberg had a soft spot for this work. He clearly returned to it for many years until its final revision over forty-eight years after the initial composition, so that injection of his friend’s style could have come during those revisions. It remains an incredible achievement for a largely self-taught composer at the outset of his career.
The seventh quartet came after a gap of ten years in Weinberg’s writing of string quartets, following an intense period composing five quartets in six years. This maybe partly explained by the trouble he got into as his writing became more complex or ‘formalist’. That is how Soviet realist doctrine described anything which was the least experimental and which, according to the authorities, emphasised form over content. This trouble culminated with the sixth quartet which was marked as ‘not recommended for performance’. That period included Weinberg’s terrifying experience of being jailed, first in the infamous Lubyanka then Butyrka prisons, due to a loose family connection to someone accused in the notorious doctor’s plot to kill Stalin. Though never proved, it did, as was often the case, provide an excuse for more widespread arrests and executions. These frightful times affected every aspect of life, including the arts, and resulted, in the case of music, in composers seeking to stay on the right side of the regime by modifying their works to comply with the prescribed template.
The seventh quartet begins with a meditative inward-looking adagio. It was the first time Weinberg employed this feature in his quartet writing and, as became a signature in his compositions, ethnic flashes that impart a degree of irony. I was interested to read that his original intention with the second movement was to include a weighty scherzo but that he removed it perhaps due to the length of the outer movements. This was only rediscovered in 2016, so I really hope it will one day be recorded either as part of the quartet, should it be possible to integrate it, or as a separate item. As it is, the second movement gives us a delightful polka-like interlude, klezmoric in texture and origin. By including so many Jewish references in his music, Weinberg may have been continually paying homage, and perhaps assuaging a feeling of guilt for surviving the holocaust which engulfed so many millions, including his own family; understandably, he never got over it.
The third and last movement is a real tour-de-force in compositional terms. It is full of complex ideas which include a huge series of 23 variations on a theme introduced by the viola eventually recalled in roughly reverse order in almost palindromic form. This device, unique in Weinberg’s output, would have been – as David Fanning writes in his thorough notes – recognised by Bartók and Berg. It is writing like this that marks Weinberg out as a true original whose contribution to music and especially the string quartet repertoire is only now being recognised as the treasure trove it is.
By the time Weinberg came to write his eleventh string quartet, he was indisputably a master of the genre, so he allowed himself to introduce a certain degree of experimentation. The quartet opens with a section that brings to mind Rameau’s La Poule with its pecking motif. It reappears throughout the movement, rising in intensity and later with a certain urgency that shakes off the folksy aspect while maintaining the rhythm of the hen’s staccato-like feeding. The second movement, Weinberg’s second attempt to write it, after he rejected almost all his seventeen-page original, is a brief but telling Allegretto laced with several pizzicato episodes. The third, an Adagio, is quite introverted and sparse. It is somewhat unusual for Weinberg who so often enjoyed injecting humour into his works. It is more reminiscent of late Shostakovich whose darkness was a greater feature in his music than that of his younger friend. The finale, marked Allegro leggiero, continues this subdued atmosphere before a strangely uneasy waltz emerges, bringing back strains of the quartet’s opening.
David Fanning calls the eleventh quartet Weinberg’s most elusive. I have yet to hear them all but can easily believe it to be the case. It is interesting that he chose to dedicate to his first daughter Victoria this introverted work rather than something more upbeat. In any event, it is another cogent argument in favour of reassessing Weinberg as one of the truly great twentieth-century writers of chamber works, especially string quartets.
In a note, the performers echo first the surprise at having discovered a composer who was so little known only a few years ago, and then the real joy at having done so. They exclaim their huge admiration for Weinberg and the emotional depths he plumbed in his works. They have made it their goal to bring his quartets to the widest possible audience. The playing of the Arcadia Quartet certainly reveals both the music’s intense humanity and the artistry embodied within. The obvious reverence the musicians have for the music shines through in these beautifully nuanced performances.
Ana Török (violin), Răsvan Dumitru (violin), Traian Boală (viola), Zsolt Török (cello)