WEINBERG: Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, op. 47/1 (1949). Symphony No. 6, op. 79 (1963)*.
*Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande.
Naxos 8.572779 TT: 61:02.

A masterpiece coupled with superior light work. Mieczyslaw Weinberg's life makes depressing reading. A Polish Jew, he fled to the Soviet Union from the Nazi invasion. This, among other things, led to confusion about the composer's name, mostly due to Russian transliteration into English. Weinberg has thus also appeared as Moisey Vainberg, which is how I first discovered him. He, however, wrote his name in Roman letters as "Mieczyslaw Weinberg," and writers now customarily refer to him this way.

Unfortunately, Weinberg's flight caused him more problems. Conditions for Jews in Russia were only slightly better than in Germany (no official mass executions) and, immediately after World War II, became worse as Stalin began anti-Semitic purges. Weinberg's father-in-law, the prominent Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was assassinated in the street by the KGB, and Weinberg himself came very close to "disappearing," accused of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism." Intercession by Shostakovich (at great personal risk) very likely saved him.

Weinberg met Shostakovich during the war. The two became friends and friendly competitors. Weinberg stirred Shostakovich to write string quartets as central to his composing activity. Shostakovich profoundly influenced Weinberg's idiom. Both sound remarkably like the other, and at the same aesthetic level. Some claim to easily distinguish the two, but for me, it's a matter of emotional subtleties rather than notes. Many dismiss Weinberg as a mere imitator because they value originality of expression more than quality -- an attitude inherited from Romanticism, I think. It's also true that an imitator rarely produces at the level of the originator -- not the case here. Me, I'm just happy to have more Shostakovich symphonies, concerti, and chamber music, even if Shostakovich didn't write them.

No fool, Weinberg seldom made political statements, but his works can't help but reflect Soviet politics. The date (1949) of the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes means something. Weinberg wrote this work in the wake of the Zhdanov decree of 1948, which ranted against every Soviet composer of note (and a few hacks who had inadvertently put a political foot wrong) as "formalist" -- a term that had no meaning except what the Party found convenient to keep artists cowed. Some composers deliberately tried to make their works more crowd-pleasing, in a futile attempt to avoid Party censure -- futile because the Zhdanov decree was never really about aesthetics.

Weinberg wrote the Rhapsody with accessibility in mind and largely succeeded in producing an entertaining work in the cast of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. It follows the general pattern of such things -- slow to fast, with lotsa climaxes followed by quiet interludes. The Republic of Moldova (or Moldavia) lies between Rumania and Ukraine. Like most "gateway" countries, it's had a confused and troubled history, especially during the Communists and, around World War II, the Nazis. Its folk music blends various ethnic strains, including Hungarian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Thus, Weinberg's Rhapsody sounds at times like Liszt or Kodály, at times like Bartók's "Romanian" pieces, and at times like Khachaturian. Though looser and simpler than Weinberg's symphonies, the Rhapsody is better built than most in the genre, where the principle of "one thing after another" seems to rule. Weinberg instead subtly manipulates and varies little cells as well as full-blown themes. Indeed, cells become themes, particularly the opening bass accompaniment. But it's mainly a good time, an honest cheap thrill, not a lecture. Sometimes you want the Brahms Fourth, sometimes you want this.

A different kettle of fish altogether, Weinberg's Symphony No. 6 appeared in 1963, one year after Shostakovich's Babi Yar, Symphony No. 13. Shostakovich admired Weinberg's score so much, he used it to teach his students. The two works subtly connect to one another as major statements by master Russian composers on the Soviet persecution of Jews. To be fair, Russians hardly needed any help in this area, anti-Semitism running long and deep throughout their history, but under the Soviets it became official policy. The government did their best to suppress Weinberg, promoting lesser talents over him and at one point denying him commissions so that he was reduced to writing for the circus -- this, of course, in addition to adding him to a purge list. Weinberg kept silent, heroically as it turned out, since he refused to complain even after the lid came off. Fortunately, great musicians wanted to work with him, even as a pianist, and he got by, although not without cost to his health. Weinberg never denied his family history and indeed celebrated it. He also got Shostakovich to investigate the music of Eastern European Jewry, which led to at least one masterpiece, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and perhaps to Babi Yar.

Like most dissident Soviet art of the period, criticism of policy had to remain sub rosa, even during the so-called Khrushchev thaw of the Sixties, when one could at least criticize the horrors of Stalin. Consequently, what may pass for coincidence in Western culture becomes almost strident behind the Iron Curtain. After all, Babi Yar landed both Shostakovich and the poet Yevtushenko in trouble for talking about a massacre of Jews carried out by the Germans during World War II, but no one, including the Soviet government, was misled into thinking that the poem left Soviets off the hook. Weinberg's symphony, also choral, uses poems ostensibly about children, the first two of which are by the Jewish Lev Kvitko (executed by the Soviets during the "doctors' plot" purge) and by Samuil Galkin, also Jewish. I haven't been able to find much on the third poet, Mikhail Lukonin, other than his commitment to Soviet Communism and anti-Fascism. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that Soviet audiences took this as, among other things, a critique of national attitudes toward Jews.

This symphony in particular provides fodder to those who consider Weinberg a parasite on Shostakovich, but I disagree. Of course, the two share a musical language, something Weinberg freely acknowledged. As Brahms said of someone who pointed out the similarity between his theme in the finale of his First Symphony and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," "any idiot can tell that." Important differences remain. First, Shostakovich's symphonic voice in Babi Yar achieves power through the epic. Weinberg sings much more intimately, and paradoxically delivers as much of a wallop because the scale is so personal.

The general plan of the Symphony No. 6 runs as follows:

• Adagio (orchestra only)

• Allegretto (boys' choir and orchestra) -- the poem concerns a boy who makes a violin and plays for the animals
• Allegro molto -- a scherzo movement for orchestra
• Largo (boys' choir and orchestra) -- the poem describes a house in which children were murdered. This leads directly to
• Andantino (boys choir and orchestra), a hymn of children for universal peace.

The symphony begins with a lament, as does the Shostakovich. The latter conjures up the opening of a mass grave. Weinberg, on the other hand, gives you the bleakness, the sickness of an individual soul, almost completely without hope. In the nightmarish third movement, demons tear across the landscape, following which we have the death of children. The protest comes in subtle ways. The largo, for example, Weinberg reworked from a group of Jewish Songs, written during World War II. In that context, it's hard not to think of the children as Jews. In the final movement, Weinberg alludes to a figure in Shostakovich's finale to Babi Yar. I would argue a more universal program for this symphony beyond the protest, simply from the placement of movements, of innocence brutalized and, from the horror, a prayer for redemption.

Weinberg succeeds on his own terms. We have not a pale imitation of a masterpiece, but two masterpieces on somewhat the same topic, written very closely together. Shostakovich, a bigger name in the West, was made much of in Europe and in the U.S. for his heroism, but Weinberg was no less heroic.

Both Weinberg works appeared from different forces on the late, lamented Olympia label, many people's introduction -- certainly mine -- to this composer. Those releases are currently unavailable. Congratulations to Naxos (and to Chandos, incidentally) for committing to Weinberg. These performances at least equal the previous ones and come in much better sound, besides.

S.G.S. (February 2013)