WEINBERG: Trumpet Concerto, op. 94 (1966-67). Symphony No.
-- there is no word more cruel," op. 138 (1982-84).
Andrew Balio (trumpet); Tatyana Perevyazkina (soprano); Ekaterina Shikunova
(alto); Vladimir Dobrovolsky (tenor); Zahar Shikunov (baritone); St.
Petersburg Chamber Choir; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir
Naxos 8.573190 TT: 70:26.
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Powerful. The composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also known as Moishe Vainberg
and variants thereof) was born in Poland. In the Thirties, at the approach
of the Nazi army, he fled East to the Soviet Union, apparently preferring
Russian anti-Semitism to German and Polish. He chose with no really
good outcome available. The Nazis killed the family that remained.
Soviet music administrators mostly ignored his music, but fortunately
he attracted the admiration of really good Russian musicians, most
notably Shostakovich. In fact, the two became friends. Although
he never became Shostakovich's pupil, Weinberg took on Shostakovich's
style and had the talent to write as well as the older man. Many
consider him a composer at the level of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
World War II, as Stalin's paranoia increased, Weinberg found himself
in mortal trouble. His father-in-law, the prominent Jewish actor
Solomon Mikhoels, was killed in the street at the behest of Stalin.
infamous "doctors' plot" -- essentially an excuse for
another pogrom -- Weinberg found himself in jail and about to disappear.
Only the death of Stalin saved him. The new government decreed
trumped-up and released both him and the doctors. He lived long
enough to complete 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, a boatload
chamber and orchestral music, film scores, ballets, and an opera.
Some of Weinberg's symphonies cluster together in programmatic
sets, as is the case of Symphonies 17 ("Memory"),
-- there is no word more cruel", and 19 ("The Bright
designated as the "War Triptych." A choral symphony with
soloists, Symphony No. 17 consists of four movements, played without
a break. The first movement begins with a remarkable Tannhäuser-like
hymn set for three solo cellos. Brass enter to stiffen the mood.
The hymn and the brass material simultaneously develop, but they
synch. The movement becomes faster and more dissonant before it
dissolves into fragments. The second movement, a lament over the
soldier," takes the same general tack as the first, only with
a chorus. An unaccompanied male choir begins, joined eventually
by the women. Again, the two forces don't quite line up harmonically.
The setting follows the folk-song ballad rhythm of the text. After
an orchestral transition, which features a remarkable dialogue
horn and oboe over a bass pedal point, the choir repeats the text
with roughly the same musical material, but this time, the rhythms
mimicking broken speech.
Acting as a scherzo, the third movement sets a World War II Russian
folksong in which a young woman fervently wishes her young soldier
lover to stay safe in battle. Oddly, the tune is a perky one, but Weinberg
rings increasingly grotesque changes on it -- exposing beneath the
jaunty smiles, the terror. Fury spends itself, and the movement ends
quietly, slowly, and sparsely, with harp and divided strings, the harp
imitating a balalaika. The music reminds me of a lone figure staring
out over a bleak landscape. This flows seamlessly into the finale,
taken up by the choir singing a cappella a rather purple Soviet poem
-- the symphony's subtitle. I say a cappella, although the liner notes
tell me that muted brass supports the singers. It's pretty muted and
probably there only to help the choristers keep pitch. At any rate,
the miserable text gets a magnificent setting. Non-Russian speakers
will find themselves at an advantage. The symphony ends quietly and
with a sense of the full horror of the Great Patriotic War.
The Trumpet Concerto, in many ways the more progressive work, comes
from almost two decades before the Symphony. In the Sixties, a tiny
Soviet avant-garde began to appear, one which didn't try
to produce Socialist Realism or propaganda pieces. These included
the first Soviet
serialists and others -- including Schnittke, Denisov, and Ustvolskaya
-- not that the government encouraged them, by any means. Some
of them attended Shostakovich's composition class, and they in
the direction he took in his late period. Weinberg absorbed these
new approaches as well, probably through Shostakovich, although
Weinberg could comfortably wander through all parts of his own
Concerto, unlike much of Weinberg, seems to lack an inner "program" and
consequently comes across as more abstract, though never inexpressive.
The first movement, "Etudes," explodes with one memorable
idea after another, including: a "scale" over the span of
a tritone, followed by a leap of a fourth; the worrying of a half-step;
a "circus polka"; various others. Many of these sound like
practice riffs for the instrument, thus justifying the title. All get
developed, and all of the movement's material come from these and their
transformations. Overall, the mood is boisterous, with the trumpet
and the orchestra competing against each another. Toward the end, the
music becomes introspective with what sounds like new material, but
it's simply the "worried" half-step with modest extensions.
Eventually, the orchestra begins to get restive, the trumpet flexes
its muscles, and the movement ends with a swagger.
Episodes," the second movement, proceeds mainly as a slow
march, its main rhythm a triplet on the upbeat followed by a quarter
The rhythm gets recalled at various times. Again, the movement
contains more basic ideas than usual -- at least four: a fanfare-like
of fourths; a decorated arpeggio on a minor chord (C'-E-flat'-G);
a nervous arabesque, introduced by the flute; a half-step followed
an upward leap. Again, however, Weinberg wastes none of his material.
From low dynamic, the movement builds to a point where the trumpet
takes over with an insistence on the main rhythm, after which things
calm down and the movement ends on a variation of the nervous arabesque
The slow movement merges directly into the finale, "Fanfares," which
opens with a long cadenza for the soloist. The trumpet takes up the
main rhythm of "Episodes," and Weinberg then has some fun
attaching to the rhythm the opening scraps of Mendelssohn's "Wedding
March" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Procession of the Nobles" (from Mlada). The trumpet recalls themes from earlier movements, especially
the tritone scale. Weinberg adds another idea: an arpeggio of major
and minor thirds, ascending and descending. With these elements, he
makes the movement, which remains at the quiet end of things, to the
end, which becomes even more fragmentary. The worrying half-step is
the last thematic bit we hear before the orchestra tacks on the final
The performances are quite good without reaching special. They need
a bit more juice, particularly the symphony. However, I remain grateful
to Naxos for exploring Weinberg's work. Both of these pieces were available
on the defunct Olympia label as well as on Russian
Disc, whose sonics
I usually call "Soviet." Trumpeter Andrew Balio gives
the concerto most of its juice, and the orchestra seems rhythmically
sharper here than in the symphony. If you don't know Weinberg's
work, Naxos gives you a relatively cheap place to start.
S.G.S. (July 2014)