WEINBERG: Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra, op. 30 (1946); Symphony No. 21, op. 152, "Kaddish" (1991). Gidon Kremer (violin), Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
Deutsche Grammophon 483 6566 TT: 88:59 (2 CDs).
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Bleak and bleaker. I've told Weinberg's story before. A Polish Jew, he fled Poland as the Nazis rolled in. Unlike many refugees, who fled west to France, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union. There he encountered Soviet anti-Semitism and almost "disappeared" in the "Doctors' Plot," a paranoid Stalin fantasy that focused on Jews. His father-in-law, a famous actor and perhaps the most prominent Russian Jew, was murdered on the street by the KGB. Even after the death of Stalin, Weinberg was ignored by the Soviet official musical establishment. Fortunately, he gained the support of most of the great Soviet musicians. He became friends with Shostakovich early on, and although both men's music sounds similar, Weinberg never studied with the other. Indeed, much evidence suggests that the influence was mutual. He is the third great Soviet composer, after Prokofieff and Shostakovich. Weinberg composed in all genres but concentrated on the symphony and the string quartet. He actually wrote more symphonies than the numbering would suggest, since there more "chamber symphonies" -- a designation he used mainly because he didn't want to be known as another Miaskovsky, i.e. a kind of symphonic lusus naturae. On this program, we get an early work and a very late one.

The Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra comes from around the end of World War II and stands apart from other Soviet symphonies of its time in that it doesn't try to document actual events. Just think of Shostakovich's symphonies from around the same time -- the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth. Weinberg doesn't approach the symphony "abstractly": that word is too inexact and implies a bloodless work. The symphony unsettles, like a wind-driven night in dark woods, but Weinberg does construct a complex thematic argument. However, unlike Shostakovich at this time, the "program" is less explicit and doesn't make anywhere near an equal claim for attention as the music of the symphony. The first movement begins in a Russian pastoral vein, airy and full of light. A second idea expresses romantic tenderness and yearning, but it's a mere transition to darker moods. Light tries occasionally to break through, but the darkness nearly always comes back, often in grotesque ways. At one point, we get what seems like a dance of death -- Death and his fiddle. Even the bright themes become nightmarish in these new contexts, and as for the dark ones, don't ask. Toward the end, the music seems to hold its breath. The pastoral tries to return, but tentative, it fails to establish itself. A tired chorale leads to what feels like an obligatory major chord. If anything, it's the peace of the grave.

The second movement, an adagio (to me highly influenced by Mahler), begins with a unison recitative in the lower strings, answered by a whimpers in the high strings. The first full-fledged theme turns out to be a very Russian lament -- it reminds me of passages in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The music is sparse; you can easily imagine large stretches of it as a chamber work, with masterful contrapuntal writing for the strings and a feeling of deep interiority. But it's as drear as a tuberculosis sanitorium. About two-thirds through, the movement tries to lighten -- again, with little success. The movement ends with a wan violin solo and conventionally benedictory chords. However, the solo is harmonically and astringently out of tune.
The finale, another grotesquerie, features syncopations so subtle that they sound as if the players have made a mistake. At one point, the orchestra divides into three, each part with its own rhythm and phrasing. Here the danse macrabre imagery becomes its most insistent in the score. Formally, the movement is a variation form, and although it owes much to Shostakovich, it equals Shostakovich in quality. The movement ends like ghosts disappearing into a graveyard at daybreak. Unlike many Soviet works of the time, this piece eschews patriotic celebration or even a sense of relief at the war's end (hear Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, for example). It seems to sing of shell shock.

Weinberg's Symphony No. 21 "Kaddish" took him almost thirty years to complete. He began it in the Sixties, and it turned out to be his last major work. He considered it one of his two most important -- the other, the opera The Passenger. Both come from the experience of the Holocaust, the fate of Weinberg's family and other Polish Jews and, as such, belong to a subset of many Weinberg scores, including the Symphony No. 8 "Polish Flowers" and the cantata Love Diary. It becomes a lament for European Jewry. The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, itself sets up contradiction, in that it doesn't keen for the departed or try to comfort mourners. It instead praises God and indeed insists on that praise. It is a non-answer answer.

Unlike Weinberg's Second, this symphony asserts its program, both autobiographical and transcending a single life. Quotations from other Weinberg works and from other composers abound. The symphony, a gigantic single movement, falls into several large sections. The thematic argument is simultaneously complex and tight and the musical imagery among the richest to be found in any Weinberg composition.
The first movement presents an epic, tragic chorale for large orchestra, interspersed with commentary from mainly the solo violin and smaller combos. References to Mahler's grim Lied "Das irdische Leben" (earthly life) and to Weinberg's own String Quartet No. 4 appear throughout the movement. Toward the end, Weinberg quotes in broken phrases Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in g -- a startling moment that makes you realize this movement laments the destruction of Poland as a nation and as a culture.

A nightmarish second movement follows. I kept thinking of Yeats's line "Things fall apart" -- a musical description of chaos. The largo third movement begins as a cry of despair de profundis, which leads to a lumbering bass fiddle solo in klezmer style. The movement leans even further into klezmer at the end with a clarinet solo wailing a disguised reference to "Das irdische Leben." This explodes into a full-blown klezmer presto dance. But the energy flags, and the fourth movement ends with another sorrowful song, beginning with an oboe and flute duet. Here, Weinberg makes explicit the links to the extermination of the European Jews. The fifth movement is full of references to Weinberg's String Quartet No. 4 and even, I think, to certain dark works of Shostakovich. Why the String Quartet No. 4? It appeared in 1946, when freed of the necessity of fighting the Nazis, the Soviet government turned its attention to purging its own citizens, particularly Soviet Jews and those prominent in the arts. The music is spare, even stark, with prominent solo violin, as if one surveys a vast battlefield of the dead. An angry, resolute passage leads to the finale -- passionate, full of protest. In a pause for breath, a solo treble voice seems to sing another prayer (yet another variant of "Das irdische Leben" plus the string quartet theme). The music broods beneath. Various solo instruments join in -- including the violin (which seems the musical stand-in for the composer) and the clarinet (perhaps representing the Jews) -- I kept thinking of Lear and the fool on the ruined heath. The opening phrase of Chopin's g-minor Ballad makes a brief appearance. After a final attempt to rouse itself to action, the symphony fades to numbness. After the Holocaust, nothing said can contain or manage its enormity. Like the Kaddish itself, there is no comforting answer.

Weinberg's symphonies resemble Beethoven's, Brahms's, Mahler's, or Shostakovich's in that no one has the final word and that they accommodate a host of approaches. They actually need many interpreters to reveal their layers of meaning. I found Grazinyte-Tyla's Symphony No. 2 a bit scattered and flaccid. However, she does turn in a gripping account of the "Kaddish," and Deutsche Grammophon has recorded the whole thing beautifully. Don't get this CD merely for Kremer, because it will disappoint you. The solos bind too tightly to the symphony and are too brief to show his chops. They don't belong to a virtuoso soloist, but to a concertmaster. The symphony, not the soloists, remains the star.

S.G.S. (August 2019)