WEINBERG: Trumpet Concerto, op. 94 (1966-67). Symphony No. 18 "War -- 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 Lande.
Naxos 8.573190 TT: 70:26.


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. After 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. After the 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 the charges trumped-up and released both him and the doctors. He lived long enough to complete 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, a boatload of other 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"), 18 ("War -- there is no word more cruel", and 19 ("The Bright May"), 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 don't synch. The movement becomes faster and more dissonant before it dissolves into fragments. The second movement, a lament over the burial of a "simple 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 between horn and oboe over a bass pedal point, the choir repeats the text with roughly the same musical material, but this time, the rhythms are distended, 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 turn influenced 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 idiom. The Trumpet 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 (da-da-da-DUM). The rhythm gets recalled at various times. Again, the movement contains more basic ideas than usual -- at least four: a fanfare-like chain of fourths; a decorated arpeggio on a minor chord (C'-E-flat'-G); a nervous arabesque, introduced by the flute; a half-step followed by 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 cadence.

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)