Wednesday 6 June 2012

Weinberg - The forgotten composer

Even his name varies from Mieczysław Weinberg to Moishe Vainberg so I suppose it is hardly surprising that this enigmatic composer, born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw, is barely known to most people.

Mieczysław Samuilovich Weinberg (1919 – 1996) came from a musical family, his father being a well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theatre. Weinberg studied at the Warsaw Conservatory from the age of twelve, graduating in 1939.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union where he settled in Minsk and undertook further studies in composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, himself a pupil of Balakirev and Rimsky Korsakov. His family remained behind and, in his own words ‘…my entire family was killed by Hitler’s executioners…’

When Hitler invaded Russia, Weinberg had to flee again to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, finding work at the opera house. In 1943, Weinberg sent the score of his recently completed First Symphony to Shostakovich which resulted in his being invited to Moscow.

Weinberg remained in Moscow for the rest of his life earning his living as a freelance composer. He married Natalia Vovsi, the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels the actor and founder of the Moscow Jewish Theatre. Mikhoels was murdered on the orders of Stalin in 1948.

Weinberg himself was arrested in February 1953 on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism.’ Shostakovich took the brave decision to write a letter to the authorities vouching for Weinberg’s honesty and talent as a composer. Fortunately Stalin died in March 1953 and Shostakovich was able to write that ‘…in the past few days M S Weinberg has returned home…’

Weinberg always seemed to be stoical, even positive, in his outlook. When looking back on the Stalin years he took the view that composers had been relatively lucky and that none had been arrested, adding the afterthought ‘…except me of course.’

His friendship with Shostakovich was one of the most important aspects of his life.  He regarded Shostakovich as his teacher saying ‘…I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.’

Weinberg spent his last days confined to bed by ill health, depressed by the complete neglect of his music. Ten years after his death a concert premiere of his opera The Passenger in Moscow started a posthumous revival of his music.  David Pountney staged the opera at the 2010 Bregenz Festival and restaged it at English National Opera the following year, earning considerable acclaim.

Shostakovich spoke very highly of Weinberg's music calling him ‘…one of the most outstanding composers of the present day.’

His compositions include operas, twenty six symphonies (twenty two plus four chamber symphonies), chamber music including seventeen string quartets, over forty film scores, a large number of songs and many piano works.

I first got to know Weinberg’s music through the Olympia and Russian Disc recordings of his symphonies. If you can get hold of the Olympia disc of the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony (no longer available but often found second-hand on Amazon there is some terrific music to be heard in great performances.

As an alternative, Naxos  have recorded Weinberg’s Violin Concerto coupled with Myaskovsky’s Violin Concerto.


Chandos have undertaken to record the complete symphonies and, after a slow start, eight of the symphonies are now available on six CDs.                             

It is often said that Weinberg’s music is heavily influenced by Shostakovich. Indeed, one commentator has even referred to it as a bad copy of Shostakovich. In my view this is completely unfair. Certainly there is often the feel of Shostakovich lurking in the background but Weinberg was very much his own man with a distinctive sound of his own.

I have just been listening to the latest issue form Chandos of Weinberg’s Symphony No.20 Op.150 and Cello Concerto Op.43.

CHSA 5107

From the beginning with its quiet, powerful, ruminating adagio, the symphony builds through a weighty allegretto that, despite a jaunty Mahlerian trio section, doesn’t dispel the mood of bleakness, ending abruptly.

In the central intermezzo there is a lightening of mood with its mysterious shifting melody. Next comes another scherzo which starts with brass and timpani in a movement that is forthright and relentless in nature. The final lento is anguished, with a striking alto flute passage, rising to a slight climax before a decisive end.

Whilst Shostakovich is a presence in the music, as are Prokofiev and Mahler, Weinberg does have his own voice, taking the influences to new horizons. This is a fine symphony which I have played three or four times already.

The Cello concerto from 1948 commences with an intense, lyrical adagio before a dance like moderato that has a Jewish flavour and, at times, even a Spanish feel with some wonderful delicate orchestral touches.

The third movement allegro challenges the cellist in music that fairly tumbles along. The cadenza pulls in themes from earlier leading directly to the final allegro which has wistful moments around the vigorous writing, ending quietly with the return of the beautiful opening adagio theme.

The performances by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thord Svedlund are first rate and, in the Cello Concerto Claes Gunnarsson is a fine soloist.

With fine recorded sound and excellent booklet notes by David Fanning this CD is a must for anyone interested in Russian music.

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