Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Seven Romances Op. 127 after words by Alexander Blok for soprano and piano
Piano Trio No. 1 Op. 8 [11:26]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Jewish Songs Op. 13 after texts by Itzhok Lejb Peretz (arr. soprano and piano
trio by Alexander Oratovski, 2004) [12:51]
Piano Trio Op. 24 [25:56]
Kateryna Kasper (soprano)
rec. 2020, SWR Funkstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
CPO 555 367-2 [77:37]
One might wonder what inspired CPO to pair these composers, other than the fact that each contributed a song cycle and a piano trio here. But from 1943 onwards they were firm friends and considerable admirers of each other’s music. However well one knows their compositions, it may sometimes be difficult to be certain which of them wrote a piece that one is hearing for the first time; what makes it so is a pertinent question. It has been said, cruelly and without foundation, that Weinberg became a clone of his older friend and mentor. Anyone who knows and appreciates their music will reject this oft-repeated calumny, because either composer has his highly individual style, developed independently. There have been similarities, not the least because the two often influenced and even challenged each other, but they were no copycats.
Shostakovich, half a generation older, was Russian. Weinberg, a Polish Jew, was 24 when he met the older composer, and had already written a good deal of music. Take the Jewish motifs, easily explained in Weinberg’s music. Shostakovich, a Gentile, closely identified with the plight of Jews: antisemitism in Tsarist Russia changed little after the Soviet revolution. Given that he knew how the Soviet people also suffered, his Jewish-inspired music may have been a musical metaphor for the overall political situation.
Shostakovich wrote his Seven Romances in 1967. He had had frightening health problems, involving a heart attack and paralysis, and could not work for many months. It was a selection of verses by his much-admired poet Alexander Blok that got the creative juices running again. This clever setting points to the end of the cycle by introducing the instruments one at a time: the cello, then the piano, then the violin. In the next three Romances, there are cello and piano, then violin and piano, then cello and violin. Only in the last song is the soprano accompanied by all three.
Isaac Glikman, one of Shostakovich’s oldest and dearest friends wrote: “In my opinion, the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy. The two tragic songs – Gamayun, Bird of Prophesy and Oh What Rage Beyond the Window [The Storm] – form a contrast with the glorious lyricism of the other songs, while the last one, At Night When Agitation Stills [Music] has an overwhelmingly radiant beauty.” Glikman also wrote, after hearing Shostakovich play him the pieces, that they left him “with an unforgettable impression [that] Shostakovich had written his confession, maintaining hope and belief in the future despite his sufferings”. The booklet notes explain that the songs deal with “loneliness, loss and reminiscences of past happiness” as well as “tyranny (No. 2), urbanisation (No. 4) and solidarity (No. 5)”. They are very powerful, made all the more so by the spare instrumentation.
Alexander Blok had at first embraced the revolution in Russia, but later became embittered and distanced himself from the Soviet regime. Shostakovich had been similarly affected, and yet yielded to the pressure and joined the Communist Party in 1960. The cycle was composed when the country was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution. That alone should reveal the composition’s significance, and explain why Glikman wrote about confession.
Turning the telescope round, we have one of Shostakovich’s earliest works, written when he was a youth of 17, even before his first symphony catapulted him to fame in 1925. Remarkably, we can hear many elements characteristic of the composer Shostakovich became. He already knew how to tug at the heartstrings with achingly beautiful melodies, and to suggest a pattern of notes which he does not necessarily follow, choosing instead to have the music lead the listener to unexpected places. He enjoys building up to an explosive point, only to collapse this energy with the gentlest tune and then begin to build the energy again. For one so young, it is a mature work, satisfying at all levels. It rewards the listener the more one hears it.
Weinberg may have felt impelled to express his Jewish heritage in much of his music, perhaps not because of any highly developed sense of religiosity but for the same historical reasons as Shostakovich. Weinberg escaped the Nazis, fleeing to Minsk in 1939 and then to Tashkent in 1941, ending up in Moscow in 1943. He later learned that his parents and younger sister had perished in the Holocaust.
Jewish Songs Op. 13, written in 1943, along with the Jewish Songs after Shmuel Halkin Op. 17, became the trigger for Shostakovich’s cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79. They are sung in Yiddish – the texts are in the booklet – and can be seen as a powerful expression of Weinberg’s need to identify with his heritage. The songs are mainly upbeat, with echoes of klezmer, but The Orphan’s Letter is very sad, and low registers are reminiscent of Shostakovich, pointing out the two composers’ similar styles.
Weinberg composed his Piano Trio after he had moved to Moscow, possibly at Shostakovich’s invitation. The opening notes are so Shostakovian that one could be forgiven for thinking it was the older composer’s music one were hearing. But the similarity soon disappears, and the music becomes more typical Weinberg. There are abrupt changes of mood and pace, from anxious and frenetic to calm, lyrically rich and at times full of pathos; his fate and the Jewish fate are never far from the surface. One can find klezmer references along the way, particularly towards the finale. It is salutary to realise that a man of only 26 should feel compelled to write music of, at times, searing intensity, rather than the youthful and happy music many young composers might like to compose. The Piano Trio makes for a hugely rewarding listening experience. It fully justifies the mounting regard which Weinberg’s music is finally achieving.
Trio Vivente have produced a most intelligent reading of all the works on this disc. Weinberg’s Piano Trio is the highlight for me but his songs too get remarkable performances. Kateryna Kasper, the young Ukrainian soprano, is a wonderful exponent. I have every admiration for her impressive and convincing achievement in singing in Yiddish. She is a powerful advocate. She also gives a magically beautiful performance of Shostakovich’s songs. They are not easy fare but she manages to inject just the right amount of darkness into them. None of my praise should detract from the excellent performance of Shostakovich’s youthful trio. The entire disc is highly recommended.
Trio Vivente: Jutta Ernst (piano), Anne Katharina Schreiber (violin), Kristin von der Goltz (violoncello)