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Weinberg cello EPRC0045
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Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
Cello Concertino, Op. 43bis
Fantasy for cello and orchestra, Op. 52
Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153
Pieter Wispelwey (cello)
Jean-Michel Charlier (clarinet)
Les Métamorphoses/Raphaël Feye
rec. 2021, Muziekcentrum de Biljoke, Ghent, Belgium

The resurgence of interest in Mieczysław Weinberg’s music, given impetus by the centenary celebrations of his birth in 2019, currently shows little sign of abating. Weinberg died in obscurity yet today a growing audience responds to the wider circulation of his music. I have no hesitation in naming Weinberg as one of the leading Soviet twentieth-century composers and there are now choices of recordings for an increasing number of his works.

Here, the Evil Penguin label has issued an all-Weinberg album presenting a pair of works for cello and orchestra - the Concertino and the Fantasia - coupled with the Fourth Chamber Symphony. In his introductory notes to the release, renowned cellist Pieter Wispelwey writes how much he enjoys playing these works and refers to Weinberg as ‘a new star on the firmament’. Wispelwey is associated by some with playing baroque and classical music on authentic instruments, and on each occasion I have attended concerts given by him, they have been of early music played on a period cello and bow with gut strings, but he is so much more than that and it is good to see this experienced cellist championing Weinberg. Featuring prominently, too, is clarinettist Jean-Michel Charlier, another renowned and experienced performer.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw and when the German Army invaded in 1939, he fled Poland eastwards to the Soviet Union, twice escaping the advancing German armed forces. Having to keep one step ahead of his oppressors, he constantly had to uproot, eventually arriving in 1941 at Tashkent (now in Uzbekistan) and finding work at the Uzbek Opera Theatre. Shostakovich, who was thirteen years older, had been sent some of Weinberg’s music for assessment and subsequently invited him to Moscow in 1943 where they developed a close friendship.

Little in Weinberg’s tumultuous life was straightforward. His nomadic years ensured that a number of his works have not survived, having been destroyed or lost and of those extant, many have uncertain composition dates. The growth of interest and continuing research into Weinberg, the man and his music, raises the possibility of significant finds yet to be made.

He was never actually a pupil of Shostakovich, although he acknowledged Shostakovich’s school as ‘fundamental’ to his composing. The music of both composers bears testament to living subject to severe state control in all aspects of Soviet society. In Weinberg’s works, I hear much that recalls Shostakovich, although Weinberg’s use of Jewish themes is generally more overt than that of his contemporary. Both composers repeatedly write music of a chilling, austere and desolate temperament, though Shostakovich is surely the master of this domain. Noticeable with the Cello Concertino and Cello Fantasy, both masterworks, is how Weinberg evokes Polish folk-dance alongside the Jewish klezmer.

Antisemitism was widespread in 1948 when Weinberg was writing his four movement Cello Concertino; there was continuing censure of, and clampdown, on Jewish culture, blacklisting, surveillance and his father-in-law, the celebrated Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered by Stalin’s secret police. This was also the year of the Andrei Zhdanov (Central Committee secretary) anti-formalism decree, leading to terrifying public shaming of Soviet composers for failing to write the type of music the Party thought Soviet audiences should hear. Clearly alarmed by the Party’s reaction to the Cello Concertino, Weinberg consigned the score to the drawer where it lay forgotten for several decades. Only as recently as 2016 was it rediscovered in the possession of Manashir Yakubof, a Russian musicologist. It is thought the Cello Concertino, Op. 43 bis is a precursor to the enlarged Cello Concerto, Op. 43 of 1956.

Soloist Wispelwey writes how the pair of outside Adagio movements requires ‘emotionality with serious restraint’ and his playing adeptly avoids any temptation towards mawkishness, yet immediately there is aching longing about it, within an intensely cold and disconsolate climate. It is hard to escape the impact of the melodious Jewish themes that pervade the Moderato espressivo, and the vitality given to the raucous dance rhythms of the Allegro vivace clearly evokes a celebratory occasion - although maybe tongue in cheek. The Northern Flowers label has released a 2018 Moscow recording of the Cello Concertino played by soloist Marina Tarasova with the Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Rudin (c/w 24 Preludes for Solo Cello) which was favourably reviewed on Musicweb.

Weinberg wrote his Fantasy for cello and orchestra during 1951-53, an especially perilous and disturbing period in his life which included his actual arrest in 1953 charged with ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’ and brief imprisonment. Written in a single movement, it has five distinct sections including a cadenza. While dance themes and motifs of the Cello Concertino are evidently Jewish, this Cello Fantasy seems to contain traditional folk dances; the kujawiak and mazurek sounds distinctly Polish in disposition. Wispelwey creates a striking variety of moods; especially compelling is the big yearning tune of a Jewish flavour repeated several times by the cello and once by the flute. A bleak, forlorn and melancholy disposition pervades the writing, a characteristic so typical of Weinberg. A 2019 recording of the Cello Fantasy by cellist Anastasia Kobekina with the Berner Symphonieorchester under Kevin John Edusei on Claves (c/w Kobekin Bacchants, Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1) seems to have slipped by unnoticed.

Regarding Weinberg’s cello works with orchestra, I admire the compelling 2017 recording by cellist Raphael Wallfisch with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra under Łukasz Borowicz of the Cello Concertino, Op. 43bis, Cello Concerto, Op. 43 and Cello Fantasy, Op. 52 on CPO, which now faces fierce competition from Wispelwey here. He makes a formidable case for the works in these performances, providing clear articulation and alert phrasing combined with flawless intonation and attractively rich tone matched with convincing conducting by Raphaël Feye and Les Métamorphoses.

The final work is the Chamber Symphony No. 4, scored for string orchestra in four connected movements with an obligato part for clarinet, and a triangle with a mere four notes. Weinberg wrote the score in 1992, while illness confined him to his home. For his first three chamber symphonies Weinberg reworked string quartets, but No. 4 consists of original material. Musicologist Daniel Elphick mentions in his essay that the score ‘contains a large amount of self-quotation’ including a passage from his Gogol-inspired opera The Portrait (1980). In my view, it is one of Weinberg’s most captivating works with the emotional power to move the listener. The writing contains much to savour, with Jean-Michel Charlier excelling in the solo clarinet part. The opening movement begins with a sorrowful chorale on the strings which develops into music of a despondent temperament interrupted several times by a rather prosaic melody on the clarinet. Especially striking in the Allegro molto movement are those vigorous and unruly rhythms described in the notes as ‘Bartókian-like’ with fervent string writing, and successive solo passages (or ‘monologues’) for clarinet, violin and cello. The ten-minute Adagio opens with a plaintive clarinet followed by magnificent string writing, including a prominent double bass which communicates a spine-chilling atmosphere, bitter, anguished and wretched. By contrast, the closing movement Andantino, with its striking clarinet part, seems frivolous in its apathy and banality.

In the Chamber Symphony No. 4, Les Métamorphoses under Raphaël Feye provide the strongest possible competition to the alternative recordings in the catalogue, which are the impressive Kremerata Baltica under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with Mate Bekavec (clarinet) recorded in 2015 at Riga on ECM New Series (c/w. Chamber Symphonies Nos 1-3; Piano Quintet arr. for Piano, String Orchestra & percussion) and the splendid 2014 account from the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Thord Svedlund with clarinettist Johnny Jannesson on Chandos (c/w Chamber Symphony No. 3). Another recent account recommended on these pages is from 2019 in Minsk, played by the East-West Chamber Orchestra under Rostislav Krimer on Naxos (c/w Chamber Symphony No. 2).

Conductor Raphaël Feye forms a sympathetic partnership with the gifted players Les Métamorphoses chamber orchestra, which is some twenty-seven strong here. They provide stunning playing of the highest quality and reach deep to the core of Weinberg’s soundworld. Soloists Wispelwey and Charlier could hardly be bettered. Recording under studio conditions at Muziekcentrum de Biljoke, Ghent, Steven Maes of MotorMusic Classic achieves first-rate sound quality. Wispelwey provides an introductory note and musicologist Daniel Elphick an informative and readable essay. On over half of the sixty or so pages of the album there is an unnecessary number of untitled photographs of the Ghent studio recording sessions taken by Peter De Bruyne.

It feels almost inevitable that music of such a high quality as this would rise from obscurity and start to receive the attention it deserves.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Néstor Castiglione

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