WEINBERG: Symphony No. 8 "Polish Flowers," op. 83 (1964).
Rafal Bartminski (tenor); Magdalena Dobrowolska (soprano); Ewa Marciniec (alto); Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir / Antoni Wit, cond.
Naxos 8.572873 TT: 58:32.

Born in Poland, the Jewish Mieczyslaw Weinberg, cut off from the west, had to flee east into Russia when the Nazis invaded his country. Essentially, he exchanged Fascist anti-Semitism for Soviet anti-Semitism, but at least he survived. The rest of his family was killed. He did, however, have a tremendous stroke of luck. Early on, he met Shostakovich, and that changed his music. Though never a pupil of the older master, he nevertheless cultivated Shostakovich's style -- indeed, as well as Shostakovich. This rarely happens among those who merely follow, and you'd make a mistake if you thought Weinberg a mere epigone. Weinberg's musical personality is less neurotic -- if you prefer, less high-strung -- than his model, even though the two speak the same language. I'd compare it to the aesthetic relation between Haydn and Mozart or, on a less lofty level, Mendelssohn and Sullivan. Furthermore, the influence was not all one-way. Weinberg influenced Shostakovich as well. His string quartets prodded Shostakovich to pay more attention to the form. In fact, they had a friendly rivalry. Shostakovich once happily reported that he had surpassed Weinberg in number of string quartets, although after Shostakovich's death, Weinberg eventually reached a higher count. Also, inspired by Weinberg, Shostakovich began to incorporate elements of Jewish shtetl music into his idiom, resulting in such works as the magnificent cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry.

In many other ways, Weinberg couldn't catch a break. His father-in-law, the prominent Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered by government agents in the street. Weinberg himself was swept up in Stalin's final pogrom, the so-called "doctors' plot," and probably would have disappeared, had it not been for Stalin's death. Nevertheless, he had trouble getting commissions afterwards. To some extent, Shostakovich overshadowed him, but he also made officials uneasy. However, by the time of the thaw, people considered him old-hat. Nevertheless, the CD has revived his reputation. Naxos has put out enough discs of his music to constitute a series of sorts, but other labels like Chandos and Toccata Classics have done so as well.

After fleeing from Poland in the Thirties, Weinberg returned exactly once for a brief visit. In 1964, he set poems by the Polish Jewish writer Julian Tuwim for his first purely choral symphony, his eighth, subtitled "Polish Flowers." In this, he anticipates Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 (1969), in that the form is not classically symphonic, but a series of "songs." Nevertheless, Weinberg takes great care with the order.

I have little idea about the meaning of the text, since Naxos publishes no English translation, although they do have the Polish on their website. Google translation failed to produce comprehensible results, and Richard Whitehouse's booklet notes provide mere hints of the poems' concerns. Nevertheless, Weinberg's music tells its own story — Poland's tragic modern history.

The Symphony has ten movements:
• Gust of Spring
• Children of Baluty
• In Front of the Old Hut
• There was an orchard
• Elderberry
• Lesson
• Warsaw Dogs
• Mother
• Justice
• The Vistula flows

The symphony begins with a lament from the string basses and the treble voices. "Children of Baluty" is a slightly grotesque polka sung by the women. A tenor solo, supported by the male voices, sings with more warmth. The tenor continues with "In Front of the Old Hut." A yearning pervades the song. It seems to refer to times past and gone.

According to Whitehouse, "There was an orchard" concerns the poverty of the Polish peasantry, including gypsies and Jews. It begins with the choir intoning the first line of the poem, followed by an unsettling violin solo, with elements of rural fiddle. The music manages to sound quiet and angry at the same time, with prominent passages for solo soprano and alto.

" Elderberry," the fifth movement, talks about the alienation of city life and its contrast to natural beauty, according to Whitehouse. Tuwim began by embracing the possibilities of the city but soured on it as he went along, or so I gather from his Wikipedia article. Weinberg gives us an increasingly severe sermon. The tension built up by this movement explodes in the next, "Lesson," a harsh indictment of Polish society, from what Google translator tells me — a powerful and surreal allegro, complete with choral screams. The poem must have meant a lot to Weinberg, since the setting is one of the two longest and most complex in the entire symphony. The movement ends with a bass tuba solo and the snare drum.

" Warsaw Dogs" intensifies the previous mood. Whitehouse says Tuwim compares the cruel plight of the stray dogs of Warsaw to the that of the Poles during the war. The music shouts, shrieks, and hammers away barbarically. The solo tenor breaks the mood. The male voices mutter. A snare drum raps spasmodically. You think the movement will end quietly. But the orchestra enters on a louder held chord. It softens and gives way to the male voices humming the same chord. This leads directly to the next movement, "Mother," about a woman the Nazis have executed at the grave of her son. This may very well relate to Tuwim's own mother, also killed by the Nazis. Weinberg's music is hymn-like beneath a tenor solo.

" Justice" starts as an a cappella anthem for the full choir, reinforced by the orchestra at key points, mainly to confirm pitch. This purportedly talks about Nazi defeat and the glorious future under Socialism. The orchestra then doubles the chorus and finally provides a continuous support. As a point of interest, the music avoids overt triumphalism and leads directly to the finale, "The Vistula flows," the longest movement in the work.

A consolatory tenor solo begins the section. The choir enters for the first time in the most major mode we have so far encountered, to a gently rocking, pastoral rhythm. The tenor establishes a more cautionary mood, although the pastoral elements continue. The choir takes up a resolute chorale which intensifies to the movement's climax. Afterwards, the choir's music becomes more hopeful, although the harmonic ambiguities in the orchestra undercut the hope, with major and minor thirds sounding simultaneously. Again, Weinberg avoids an easy ending, one that Party officials would have approved. This man has clearly seen too much.

The chorus is fine, the soloists okay, if not spectacular. However, Antoni Wit pulls together a magnificent account, true to the rawness and bleakness of Tuwim's and Weinberg's vision. Wit has largely flown under the radar, but I consider him one of the best conductors now working, and Naxos gives him to you for a bargain price.

S.G.S. (June 2017)