WEINBERG: Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, op. 52. Concerto No. 1 for Flute and String Orchestra, op. 75. Concerto No. 2 for Flute and Orchestra, op. 148. Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, op. 104.
Claes Gunnarsson (cello), Anders Jonhäll (flute), Urban Claesson (clarinet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
Chandos CHSA 5064 (F) (DDD) TT: 79:25.
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Stateless Russian. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also known as Moisey Vaynberg, or Vainberg) was born and raised in Poland. At the very beginning of World War II, Weinberg, a Jew, managed to leave Poland for the Soviet Union before the Nazis rolled through. Shortly thereafter, he met Shostakovich, who changed Weinberg's ideas about the music he wanted to write. Although Weinberg's relation to Shostakovich was more collegial (he never studied with the older man), Shostakovich definitely left his mark. Imagine, if you can, over twenty more symphonies in the Shostakovich idiom and at Shostakovich's level. I first heard Weinberg's music on the late, lamented Olympia label, and it changed my view of twentieth-century Russian music in that it hinted at many more masterful composers than Prokofiev or Shostakovich alone. Weinberg's music represents another peak (I'd guess that Klebanov's music does as well, based on what I've heard).

Weinberg sometimes gets a bum rap as knock-off Shostakovich, but for me the two personalities are quite distinct. Weinberg writes warmer and can come up with a hummable tune for reasons other than parody or party line. Weinberg also possesses a more classical sense of form. Furthermore, Bartók comes into the mix. Mainly Shostakovich and Weinberg share a mood and a similar conception of the function of music. To some extent, the Soviet government imposed this view upon every composer who wished to get a living in the USSR. Music, even in "absolute" forms, has a program and testifies to the times. It wasn't a coincidence that Solomon Volkov entitled his Shostakovich book Testimony. Some sort of spiritual program underlies a score. It may not be the program decreed by the party, but the music must imply something beyond the notes. Weinberg's music has this quality in spades, although it probably doesn't point to Shostakovich's or Prokofiev's epic historicism. Weinberg seems to me to write about what Frost called "inner weather" -- his music sounds to me like spiritual autobiography. This may be why party officials ignored him and rarely promoted his music. Fortunately, the best musicians in the country -- including Shostakovich, Daniel Shafran, Rostropovich, Kurt Sanderling, and Rudolf Barshai -- couldn't leave it alone.

After the horrors of World War II in the Soviet Union came yet another Stalinist terror, largely directed against artists and especially against Jewish artists. The leading Jewish actor in the country, Weinberg's father-in-law, was murdered by the secret police on the streets in broad daylight. The Zhdanov decree, excoriating every major Soviet composer and quite a few minor ones, was handed down in 1948. Weinberg, along with Myaskovsky, was one of the few who refused to "repent" his Modernism. In 1953, he spent three months in jail and probably would have disappeared, had not Shostakovich (at considerable personal risk) written a letter in his defense. Perhaps Stalin's death also helped.

The Fantasia for cello comes from 1951-53 and bears the marks of Weinberg trying to come to grips with government-decreed mass accessibility. It's certainly not as grim or as weighty as Weinberg can get. However, it's not trivial either. A beautiful lyricism pervades it -- elegant tunes, one after the other. Despite its title, the score has a strongly-defined shape, and because the ideas are so memorable, the listener can easily follow its course. A declamatory idea introduces the work. This leads to an allegretto, which winds down into a short recall of the intro. A waltz, reminiscent of one the Grieg Symphonic Dances, follows. The cello then gets a cadenza which sings the first two ideas in a more meditative way. The allegretto returns and melts into the introductory idea, this time winding the piece down.

The two flute concerti contrast in interesting ways. Over twenty-five years separate them, the first from the early Sixties, the second from the late Eighties. The first one winds its spring up really tightly. It's a tough, efficient work. A lot happens during its course, and it rarely lets up. Shostakovich provides the model in the shape of the themes. Much of the fast music derives, like Shostakovich's, from Rossini's William Tell Overture. The second movement, a passacaglia (shades of the Shostakovich first violin concerto!), doesn't dissipate the intensity and indeed has more than enough energy to jump right into the fast finale. If the first concerto concentrates its force, the second strikes me as a richer, more humane work. Prokofiev rather than Shostakovich seems the primary influence, although Weinberg is a far more skillful architect. The concerto opens with a breathtakingly lovely, serene paragraph, full of the atmosphere of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. Before you know it, you find yourself in the middle of a fugato passage, far more astringent than the first idea, which leads to darker thoughts. The movement becomes largely a conflict between these two forces. It ends in emotional ambiguity. The second movement takes the form of a melancholy Russian song, almost a lullaby -- a gradual build to a strong climax and a sudden drop back to the opening dynamic and a short recap of the opening paragraph. Up to this point, we've had a concerto with a fairly classical viewpoint. The third movement shatters this with something strange. At first, it seems like another Shostakovichian rondo, again with that characteristic William Tell-Lone Ranger rhythm. About halfway in, however, the movement begins to melt like a Dali watch, as fragments from Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" and Bach's famous badinerie flit in and out over a near pedal-point in the low strings. The movement deflates like a balloon gradually losing air. It ends on a soft major chord, but nothing is truly resolved. You can write this sort of thing only if you have absorbed musical rhetorical principles into your marrow. To me, a masterpiece of the flute repertoire.

If you think about it, eighty percent of the clarinet's solo character was set by Mozart's clarinet concerto and clarinet quintet. Something different (as opposed to something merely unnatural and bizarre for the instrument) comes along rarely, and Weinberg's concerto qualifies as la difference, particularly in its emotional tone. In general, it lies closer to the first rather than to the second flute concerto -- clear neoclassical structures, sparing of notes -- but it expands a bit. It doesn't insist on one overall effect of a movement to the extent of the first concerto for flute. In the first movement, the clarinet twitches, while the strings swarm and sting like a nest of wasps. The grave second movement never settles, going from darkness to light and back again. The outcome remains in doubt until the last chord. The finale begins with a mordant theme, reminiscent of certain Yiddish folk songs. This trades off with a pawky, somewhat satirical march until the cadenza. Nevertheless, the music at times hints of serious stuff in the background, only to have the clarinet yank things back to the klezmer atmosphere. The concerto ends on an overly-affirmative major fanfare and chord, which you don't believe for a minute.

I loved this disc. The soloists are wonderful, really getting into their parts, with cellist Claes Gunnarsson standing out. The Gothenburg Symphony has never particularly impressed me before, but under Svedlund it plays like a different, much better band. The strings sound fuller, the ensemble more integrated, the texture clearer. Add to this Chandos's stellar recorded sound, and we have a winner.

S.G.S. (August 2008)