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CLASSICAL  November 2008

CLASSICAL November 2008

Subject:

Another Shostakovich

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 5 Nov 2008 15:13:30 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Mieczylsaw Weinberg

*  Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, op. 52
*  Concerto No. 1 for Flute and String Orchestra, op. 75
*  Concerto No. 2 for Flute and Orchestra, op. 148
*  Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, op. 104

Claes Gunnarsson (cello)
Anders Jonhaell (flute)
Urban Claesson (clarinet)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
Chandos CHSA5064  Total time: 79:25

Summary for the Busy Executive: Stateless Russian.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also known as Moisey Vaynberg, or Vainberg)
was born and raised in Poland.  At the very beginning of World War II,
Weinberg, a Jew, managed to leave Poland for the Soviet Union before
the Nazis rolled through.  Shortly thereafter, he met Shostakovich,
who changed Weinberg's ideas about the music he wanted to write.  Although
Weinberg's relation to Shostakovich was more collegial (he never studied
with the older man), Shostakovich definitely left his mark.  Imagine,
if you can, over twenty more symphonies in the Shostakovich idiom and
at Shostakovich's level.  I first heard Weinberg's music on the late,
lamented Olympia label, and it changed my view of twentieth-century
Russian music in that it hinted at many more masterful composers than
Prokofiev or Shostakovich alone.  Weinberg's music represents another
peak (I'd guess that Klebanov's music does as well, based on what I've
heard).

Weinberg sometimes gets a bum rap as knock-off Shostakovich, but for
me the two personalities are quite distinct.  Weinberg writes warmer
and can come up with a hummable tune for reasons other than parody or
party line.  Weinberg also possesses a more classical sense of form.
Furthermore, Bartok comes into the mix.  Mainly Shostakovich and Weinberg
share a mood and a similar conception of the function of music.  To some
extent, the Soviet government imposed this view upon every composer who
wished to get a living in the USSR.  Music, even in "absolute" forms,
has a program and testifies to the times.  It wasn't a coincidence that
Solomon Volkov entitled his Shostakovich book Testimony.  Some sort of
spiritual program underlies a score.  It may not be the program decreed
by the party, but the music must imply something beyond the notes.
Weinberg's music has this quality in spades, although it probably doesn't
point to Shostakovich's or Prokofiev's epic historicism.  Weinberg seems
to me to write about what Frost called "inner weather" -- his music
sounds to me like spiritual autobiography.  This may be why party officials
ignored him and rarely promoted his music.  Fortunately, the best musicians
in the country -- including Shostakovich, Daniel Shafran, Rostropovich,
Kurt Sanderling, and Rudolf Barshai -- couldn't leave it alone.

After the horrors of World War II in the Soviet Union came yet another
Stalinist terror, largely directed against artists and especially against
Jewish artists.  The leading Jewish actor in the country, Weinberg's
father-in-law, was murdered by the secret police on the streets in broad
daylight.  The Zhdanov decree, excoriating every major Soviet composer
and quite a few minor ones, was handed down in 1948.  Weinberg, along
with Myaskovsky, was one of the few who refused to "repent" his Modernism.
In 1953, he spent three months in jail and probably would have disappeared,
had not Shostakovich (at considerable personal risk) written a letter
in his defense.  Perhaps Stalin's death also helped.

The Fantasia for cello comes from 1951-53 and bears the marks
of Weinberg trying to come to grips with government-decreed mass
accessibility.  It's certainly not as grim or as weighty as Weinberg can
get.  However, it's not trivial either.  A beautiful lyricism pervades
it -- elegant tunes, one after the other.  Despite its title, the score
has a strongly-defined shape, and because the ideas are so memorable,
the listener can easily follow its course.  A declamatory idea introduces
the work.  This leads to an allegretto, which winds down into a short
recall of the intro.  A waltz, reminiscent of one the Grieg Symphonic
Dances, follows.  The cello then gets a cadenza which sings the first
two ideas in a more meditative way.  The allegretto returns and melts
into the introductory idea, this time winding the piece down.

The two flute concerti contrast in interesting ways.  Over twenty-five
years separate them, the first from the early Sixties, the second from
the late Eighties.  The first one winds its spring up really tightly.
It's a tough, efficient work.  A lot happens during its course, and it
rarely lets up.  Shostakovich provides the model in the shape of the
themes.  Much of the fast music derives, like Shostakovich's, from
Rossini's William Tell Overture.  The second movement, a passacaglia
(shades of the Shostakovich first violin concerto!), doesn't dissipate
the intensity and indeed has more than enough energy to jump right into
the fast finale.  If the first concerto concentrates its force, the
second strikes me as a richer, more humane work.  Prokofiev rather than
Shostakovich seems the primary influence, although Weinberg is a far
more skillful architect.  The concerto opens with a breathtakingly lovely,
serene paragraph, full of the atmosphere of the Romeo and Juliet balcony
scene.  Before you know it, you find yourself in the middle of a fugato
passage, far more astringent than the first idea, which leads to darker
thoughts.  The movement becomes largely a conflict between these two
forces.  It ends in emotional ambiguity.  The second movement takes the
form of a melancholy Russian song, almost a lullaby -- a gradual build
to a strong climax and a sudden drop back to the opening dynamic and a
short recap of the opening paragraph.  Up to this point, we've had a
concerto with a fairly classical viewpoint.  The third movement shatters
this with something strange.  At first, it seems like another Shostakovichian
rondo, again with that characteristic William Tell-Lone Ranger rhythm.
About halfway in, however, the movement begins to melt like a Dali watch,
as fragments from Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" and Bach's
famous badinerie flit in and out over a near pedal-point in the low
strings.  The movement deflates like a balloon gradually losing air. 
It ends on a soft major chord, but nothing is truly resolved.  You can
write this sort of thing only if you have absorbed musical rhetorical
principles into your marrow.  To me, a masterpiece of the flute repertoire.

If you think about it, eighty percent of the clarinet's solo character
was set by Mozart's clarinet concerto and clarinet quintet.  Something
different (as opposed to something merely unnatural and bizarre for the
instrument) comes along rarely, and Weinberg's concerto qualifies as la
difference, particularly in its emotional tone.  In general, it lies
closer to the first rather than to the second flute concerto -- clear
neoclassical structures, sparing of notes -- but it expands a bit.  It
doesn't insist on one overall effect of a movement to the extent of the
first concerto for flute.  In the first movement, the clarinet twitches,
while the strings swarm and sting like a nest of wasps.  The grave second
movement never settles, going from darkness to light and back again.
The outcome remains in doubt until the last chord.  The finale begins
with a mordant theme, reminiscent of certain Yiddish folk songs.  This
trades off with a pawky, somewhat satirical march until the cadenza.
Nevertheless, the music at times hints of serious stuff in the background,
only to have the clarinet yank things back to the klezmer atmosphere.
The concerto ends on an overly-affirmative major fanfare and chord,
which you don't believe for a minute.

I loved this disc.  The soloists are wonderful, really getting into
their parts, with cellist Claes Gunnarsson standing out.  The Gothenburg
Symphony has never particularly impressed me before, but under Svedlund
it plays like a different, much better band.  The strings sound fuller,
the ensemble more integrated, the texture clearer.  Add to this Chandos's
stellar recorded sound, and we have a winner.

Steve Schwartz

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