Thursday 8 November 2012

Playing of sensitivity and bravura from Murray McLachlan in Weinberg’s Piano Sonatas

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) has long been a neglected figure in the west. Even his name varies from Mieczyslaw Weinberg to Moishe Vainberg, Moishe Weinberg and Mieczyslaw Vainberg. My collection of Weinberg CDs sits on the shelf under Vainberg, the name used on earlier recordings.

I have always loved the music of this composer from the days when I bought an HMV Melodyia LP of his Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto. My blog of 6th June 2012 gives more information about this composer, as does the Weinberg website

Whilst the earlier Olympia recordings of the symphonies are no longer available I am glad to see that Chandos are continuing their releases of these works.

Equally exciting is the release on two CDs of Weinberg’s six piano sonatas by Divine Art Recordings with that fine pianist Murray McLachlan.

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These recordings form part of a Russian Piano Music Series covering, so far, such composers as Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Kabalevsky, Shchedrin, Rebikov, Gliere, Lyapunov, Arensky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky.

The first of these two Weinberg CDs has the Piano Sonatas No’s 1, Op.5 (1940), No.2, Op.8 (1942) and No.3, Op.31 (1946) as well as the 17 Easy Pieces, Op.24 (1946).

The 21 year old composer’s First Piano Sonata is remarkably forward looking in its dissonance. It opens with strongly dissonant chords before the entry of a quiet theme that is almost atonal in its freedom, before developing into a richer, more complex climax before a quiet close. The allegretto is light and jolly with a slightly manic Shostakovich sound.

The andantino is quietly flowing, dissonant melody whilst the allegro molto finale that concludes this work is full of energy. Murray McLachlan is excellent here, always maintaining the flow and line of the music.

Weinberg’s Second Sonata starts with a driven allegro. There is less obvious dissonance in this sonata, more subtlety. The central section, whilst more gentle has a forward drive which never seems to stop. The allegretto, though with a similar momentum, nevertheless does provide some respite after the first movement.

The third movement is a gentle adagio, freely flowing across various keys. This is an entrancing movement, somewhat mysterious in its feel and wonderfully played. The vivace finale, a rondo, is again very tonally free, whilst at one point quoting from Haydn, something I hadn’t noticed until reading Per Skans note. There is some formidable playing in this work.

By the three movement Third Sonata there seems to be an established Weinberg style, free flowing, with free use of tonality. The andante tranquillo is certainly such a movement. The dissonance is still there but subsumed into the overall sweep of the movement. There is more formidable playing from Murray McLachlan. In the wrong hands this music could lose the flow, momentum and sense of structure but McLachlan maintains all of this superbly.

The adagio sounds folk music inspired and is picked out slowly, along with a dissonant accompaniment. This is another of Weinberg’s strange slow movement creations. In the moderato con moto, Shostakovich does seem to loom, yet Weinberg manages to enlarge on his theme and brings something new and personal.

The 17 Easy Pieces are a set of charming miniatures lasting between 13 seconds and 2 minutes, which cannot be easy to play. More it is their simple charm that the title must refer to. There are attractive pieces such as the Bach like The Nightingale, a quite beautiful little The Sick Doll, an effective little Melancholy Waltz, The Goldfish that threatens to turn into London Bridge is Falling Down, and the longest piece The Dolls that is quite lovely. You can almost imagine Weinberg sitting at his piano improvising these pieces. McLachlan certainly gives that impression.

The second of these two Weinberg CDs has the Piano Sonatas No’s 4 Op.56, (1955), 5, Op.58, (1956) No.6, Op.73 (1960).

By the Fourth Sonata (1955) it is clear that Weinberg has reached a mature style. There is subtlety and depth in the first movement allegro with the material superbly developed with a greater sense of form. The shorter allegro second movement proves the perfect foil for the opening movement. There is restraint in the forward movement of the music, contrasted with some dense and formidable passages perfectly handled by Murray McLachlan.

The adagio is a thoughtful, long drawn melody that conjures up a stillness and withdrawn emotion. This is a wonderful movement played with great feeling and control. McLachlan’s playing has great emotional substance. The somewhat folksy finale allegro leads this sonata to a dynamic conclusion with challenging writing. If this was folk inspired then it soon develops into a much more complex piece before a quiet ending. I love this work and will return to it often.

The three movement Fifth Sonata is perhaps not as structurally perfect as the fourth but, in its own way, just as fine. The allegro opens powerfully before one realises that it is turning into a long developed passacaglia before eventually being overlaid in the form of a canon, developing into complex writing that is still based on the opening theme. Murray McLachlan keeps the overall line of this music superbly, despite its complexities.

An andante separates the two outer movements in music that is, again, reserved and withdrawn, sustaining a tentative melody over some ten minutes. There is great sensitivity of playing before the movement ends ambiguously. The allegretto finale has a delicate and playful opening until it develops into a formidable and complex section before falling back again. It builds up again but with less force before a pianissimo close. Just as with the first movement this is a wonderfully created flow of melody.

Weinberg’s finale piano sonata, the Sixth Sonata, is a much smaller, two movement work. The adagio has an anguished opening with bell like chords. It is obvious just how far Weinberg had progressed since his early first sonata. There is a pause before the second subject that is more restrained and gentle, leading to a section where the music ruminates on a little rhythmic motif which soon ceases before the restrained theme returns.

A lightly sprung allegro molto introduces the second movement which works its way through fugal passages reaching a tremendous climax. What terrific playing there is from Murray McLachlan.

Murray McLachlan is ideal in this repertoire, playing with both sensitivity and bravura. These former Olympia recordings are excellent, with excellent piano tone and there are first rate notes by the late Per Skans. These beautifully produced discs are thoroughly recommended.

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