Rediscoveries: Soviet-era composer Mieczysław Weinberg

The ECM New Series recent recording of works by Mieczysław Weinberg
 highlights the rediscovery of neglected composer's music.

Mieczysław Weinberg
New ECM album illustration, composer Mieczysław Weinberg inset, right. (Composite images via EMC and public domain)

CHICAGO, March 6, 2015 – Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in the music of Soviet-era composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). Recordings have begun appearing on major labels, along with the Chicago Lyric Opera’s currently running revival of his powerful opera “The Passenger.”

Now, ECM New Series has added its significant voice to the growing chorus surrounding the renewed Western interest in this great composer’s work with the release of a two-disc set whose contents span the breadth of his varied career.

Composer Mieczysław Weinberg. (Public domain)
Composer Mieczysław Weinberg. (Public domain)

While Weinberg spent most of his life eking out a perilous artistic existence in the Soviet Union, he was actually born a Jew in Poland and would bring many of his native country’s cultural and aesthetic influences to bear on his artistic output. Breaking through the tense structure and Soviet “realism” of his work is a mournful melodic strain and a sense of religious awe that often seems just slightly out of reach.

Weinberg is perhaps most famous for being a friend and confidant of the similarly imperiled Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and he is often cited for the influence that his more famous peer had on his work.

Unfortunately (perhaps as a result of this association), Weinberg also shared the Soviet regime’s longstanding, official “suspicion” of Shostakovich. It is recorded that Weinberg himself was “observed” and followed for about five years, while a number of his works were officially banned by the Soviet government.

Listening to the works of Shostakovich and Weinberg side by side, one might soon suspect that not only did the former influence the latter, but the latter influenced the former as well. Such is the quality and originality of Weinberg’s output.

Composers like Shostakovich and Weinberg were largely able to escape the prying eyes of officialdom on the smaller stage of chamber music. One can easily infer that such works are particularly important when trying to discern these men’s or any other Soviet-era composer’s true style and intent in the midst of stifling Communist-era censorship.

Shostakovich and Weinberg.
Persecuted friends: Composers Dmitri Shostakovich (L) and Mieczysław Weinberg (R). (Public domain, origin of photo unknown.)

The first disc in this ECM set represents a cross-section of Weinberg’s chamber efforts, beginning with Gidon Kremer’s interpretation of the composer’s later “Sonata No. 3” (1979), a bobbing, weaving kaleidoscope of contrasting intensities that arrive just shy of tonality.

The disc continues with the far earlier (and more tuneful) “Trio,” Op. 48, whose opening movement joins short motivic cells into an optimistic opening and whose more intense later sections are certainly reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. Weinberg’s “Trio” grows in intensity and complexity, audible evidence of his desire to push forcefully against the Communist Party’s aesthetic line in the sand.

The second disc begins with Weinberg’s “Concertino,” Op. 42, for violin solo and string orchestra. It is an arresting and emotionally stormy work, which spans of the composer’s considerable stylistic variety.

Launching with an infectiously joyful and soaring landscape, the “Concertino’s” initial burst of optimism slowly descends into discord and madness. It is hard not to read political undertones into this work, which begins with the “positivism” so fervently espoused by the Communist authorities, yet ends in the confusion and dysfunction that inevitably followed implementation of their deadly political and social nostrums. The “Concertino” is as tragic as it is significant and certainly deserves further hearings – and performances – in the West.

Cover image, new ECM New Series Weinberg CD.
Cover image, new ECM New Series Weinberg CD.

There is no need to wax poetic about Gidon Kremer’s impeccable playing and the youthful yet focused energy of his Kremerata Baltica—an ensemble of young musicians from the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that he formally launched in 1997.

Kremer’s skill and sensitivity pervade every note on these discs, as does the artistry of his ensemble. It is clear that this adventurous group makes an ideal match for the composer’s eclectic work.

Also of note is the inclusion on this set of (partially) homegrown pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has achieved much of his current fame and success while still a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

For fans of the music of the East as well as those seeking a more complete picture of the life of Weinberg’s friend Shostakovich, this is an essential recording.

Rating: *** ½ (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

Notice of correction: An earlier version of this review erroneously stated that the second disc in this release consisted “entirely of Weinberg’s ‘Concertino,’ op. 42 for violin solo and string orchestra.” Disc 2 also contains the composer’s “Symphony No. 10,” Op. 98.

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