Mieczysław Weinberg: An Album Guide for Beginners
default, Mieczysław Weinberg:
An Album Guide for Beginners, Collage of album covers, photo: promotional materials, center, wajnberg-mix-okladek.jpg
With 26 symphonies, seven concerts, 17 violin quartets, 19 sonatas, and around 150 songs (oh, and seven operas, two ballets, and scores for 65 films, theatrical productions and radio plays), it might seem hard to know where to start with Mieczysław Weinberg’s body of work. Culture.pl is here to help, with a selection of nine albums that will help even the most casual listener uncover the delights of the Varsovian composer.
‘Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21’ – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Gidon Kremer, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica (Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)
An introduction to Weinberg’s symphonies. Maciej Jabłoński wrote about Symphony No. 2 for the monthly Ruch Muzyczny in 2007: ‘It’s light, simple and lyrical music, in a certain sense perfect. Perhaps this is what all of Weinberg’s music would have been like, if not for the time and place he lived in’. Meanwhile, completed in 1991, Symphony No. 21 no longer contains the same lightness and simplicity, though Weinberg’s works never lacked lyricism. The work is subtitled Kaddish – a Jewish mourning prayer recited in Aramaic – dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In it, we can hear references to the first motif in Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor as well as klezmer music, a traditional instrument that was preserved despite the Holocaust’s tragedies.
Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger at Bregenzer Festspiele - Image Gallery
‘Chamber Symphonies & Flute Concerto’ – Anna Duczmal-Mróz & Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio (DUX, 2018)
Mieczysław Weinberg was no stranger to remixing his own works: he often returned to older compositions and rearranged them anew. His first two chamber symphonies made use of materials from his String Quartet Nos. 2 and 3 (1937/1940), while Symphony No. 3 references Quartet No. 5 (1945). Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, one of the biggest promoters of Weinberg’s music, said that his chamber symphonies reminded him of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a humanist epic dealing with the history of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Theoretically, chamber symphonies are simple, neo-classic creations: full of tension and liberation, dance motifs and playful themes, lacking any greater discord. The Amadeus Orchestra’s interpretation of this symphony, under conductor Anna Duczmal-Mróz, fully expresses the piece’s anxiety and beauty.
Major Celebrations throughout 2019 for Weinberg's Centenary
Chamber Symphonies & Flute Concerto is the second title in a series, which will eventually see the release of all of Weinberg’s chamber symphonies. The brains behind the idea is Anna Duczmal-Mróz. It’s also worth familiarising yourself with Gidon Kremer and his orchestra’s album Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet (ECM, 2017); and if you’re a fan of the flute, you should listen to Antonin Styczeń’s album Mieczysław Wajnberg: Works for Flute (Tacet, 2017).
‘Chamber Music by Mieczysław Weinberg’ – Various Artists (Melodiya, 2019)
This two-and-a-half hour selection of Weinberg’s chamber symphonies was recorded during the times of the Soviet Union for the record label Melodija. In it, we can hear Fyodor Druzhinin on the violin, legendary trumpeter Timofej Dokszicer and the Borodin Quartet – the Polish-Soviet composer’s favourite string quartet, who often premiered his works. The cherry on top is a cello sonata performed by Alla Vasilieva and Weinberg himself, who was also a talented pianist. Famed pianist and inventor Józef Hoffman was so enraptured by the composer’s performance that he offered Weinberg a university spot in the United States – an idea that never panned out due to the outbreak of WWII. How would his music have sounded had Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust from an ocean away?
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‘Complete Sonatas and Works’ – Jose Gallardo & Linus Roth (Challenge Classics, 2013)
Linus Roth, the founder of the International Mieczysław Weinberg Society, decided to assemble all of Weinberg’s works for the fortepiano and violin in one place. It is close to impossible to take in the whole three-hour work at once, but it’s worth returning to multiple times. Roth and Gallardo are truly able to bring out the subtle rhythm and harmony in these works.
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‘Children's Songs, Op. 13’ – Nadezhda Yureneva & Tamara Saltykova (Melodiya, 2017)
In 1943, while residing in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Weinberg created children’s songs set to the words of the renowned Yiddish writer Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (Isaac Leib Peretz). They were originally performed in the original Yiddish (in the manuscript, Weinberg wrote in Cyrillic), and later performed using the Russian translation. These are songs of uncommon charm, weighed down with an unspeakable heaviness – which can be best heard in the sixth part, List od Sieroty (Letter from an Orphan).
‘String Quartet No. 7 & Piano Quintet’ – Silesian Quartet & Piotr Sałajczyk (CD Accord, 2017)
One of the most interesting interpreters of Weinberg’s chamber symphonies is the Silesian Quartet: they are able to pull out subtle tones and beautiful sounds, linking technical proficiency with his works’ emotional currents. The above-mentioned album includes Piotr Sałajczyk playing the fortepiano Quintet, an early, extraverted and showy composition.
This is the first in a series of seven albums of the Silesian Quartet, on which the musicians will record all of Weinberg’s quartets. Dedicated music lovers should compare their work with the first complete recording of Weinberg’s quartets, created by France’s Danel Quartet for music label CPO. The latter’s interpretations are less dynamic and more attuned toward the details of the compositions.
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‘24 Preludes, Op. 100’ – Gidon Kremer (Accentus Music, 2019)
Weinberg composed his cycle of 24 preludes for the cello with Mstislav Rostropovich in mind, though the famed cellist never played them. David Fanning, author of the Weinberg biography In Search of Freedom, claims the collaboration never occurred due to the conflict between the cellist and composer regarding Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Rostropovich supported the writer of The Gulag Archipelago for many years). In Weinberg’s compositions, we can hear references to other works that were part of Rostropovich’s repertoire: Robert Schummans’ Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107.
Thankfully, Gidon Kremer took an interest in the preludes as well and arranged them for the violin. The tracks are stark and cold, concise and piercing. During the Latvian violinist’s concerts, he pairs the compositions with projections of Antanas Sutkus’s black-and-white naturalist photographs of the USSR, which are a far cry from propaganda photos.
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contemporary classical music
‘Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Op. 93’ – Dmitri Shostakovich & Mieczysław Weinberg (Melodiya, 1954)
Shostakovich and Weinberg had a habit of playing each other’s works and sometimes even playing piano four hands together. This recording then is a unique testament of this time period, a priceless document for scholars and music lovers. Here we can hear them both exploring Symphony No. 10, whose subtleties might normally disappear or appear unnoticed in the clamour of an orchestra. Listening to this unique version, it’s also impossible to avoid the emotional heaviness in the symphony, written during the dying years of Stalinism. It’s the first symphony that Shostakovich wrote after 1948, the year his music was officially criticised by the Soviet government.
‘The Idiot’ – Thomas Sanderling & Nationaltheater Mannheim (PAN Classics, 2015)
This final slot on our list should be held by The Passenger, Weinberg’s most famous opera, but that has yet to be released on CD (though there are two DVD versions). The Idiot, a work based on the famous Fyodor Dostoevsky tale, was the last opera composed by Weinberg. It is less literal than The Passenger, and contains more harmonic nuances to describe the opera’s characters. Thomas Sanderling is excellent as conductor, doing his best not to overshadow the performers’ voices, which isn’t easy with such an instrumental-heavy work.
Originally written in Polish, 28 May 2019; translated by Alicja Zapalska, 4 Feb 2020
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