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CLASSICAL  March 2009

CLASSICAL March 2009

Subject:

Shostakovich and Weinberg

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 17:01:45 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (117 lines)

[Read online at: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/h/han93190a.php]

Dmitri Shostakovich & Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Violin Sonatas

*  Weinberg:
      - Violin Sonata #3
      - Violin Sonata #4
*  Shostakovich: Sonata, op. 134

Kolja Blacher, violin
Jascha Nemtsov, piano
Hanssler Classic CD93.190 Total Time: 65:42

Summary for the Busy Executive: Music for a time of witness.

World War II found the Soviet Union struggling for its life.  More
Russians died during the fighting than any other group.  The war's end,
however, didn't stop the horror.  Stalin, whose mind had been on survival
during the war, now had the luxury of indulging his paranoia against his
own citizens.  There were new purges.  The Zhdanov decree of 1948 condemned
the major Soviet composers - including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky,
Khachaturian, and Weinberg - for bourgeois formalism, a term that meant
whatever the Stalinists felt convenient.  Weinberg's father-in-law, the
actor Solomon Mikhoels, the most prominent Jew in the country, was
murdered openly on the streets by the KGB.  Weinberg himself was imprisoned
for months and about to disappear into a gulag when a letter from
Shostakovich, defending him to the authorities, saved him.  It would be
odd indeed if Stalin's purges and repressions hadn't marked these men.
All the music here comes across as letters from hell.

Weinberg always considered himself a Shostakovich disciple, although he
never studied with the older man.  Writers have criticized Weinberg as
a mere imitator, a charge as truthful of Schumann and Brahms.  Weinberg
takes Shostakovich's basic language, but creates something his own.  It's
as if you have twenty-odd more symphonies and seventeen more string
quartets not only in the Shostakovich idiom, but at Shostakovich's level.

Weinberg's third and fourth sonatas both come from 1947.  Both share a
similarity of mood but exhibit great formal variety.  The third sonata,
in three movements (fast-slow-fast), is more classically oriented.  The
first movement plays with three themes in an abbreviated sonata form.
The second is a cantabile based on a theme of rising fourths, and the
finale something like a sonata-rondo, with a slow coda.  The fourth
sonata is far more free-form, more sui generis.  Weinberg nominally
divides the sonata into two movements, but one finds so many correspondences
between the two that it really does impress the ear as one large movement.
Many ideas surface and undergo development, but two stand out: the
opening, rising theme (roughly, C-Eb-Ab) and a passage of the violin's
cantabile against a quiet line of block chords in the piano, which Nemtsov
compares to Messiaen's "Louange a l'=C9ternite de Jesus" movement from
the Quartet for the End of Time.  The entire structure is slow-fast-slow,
with the fast section - a series of bugle calls and quick runs - marking
the beginning of the formal second movement.  The music takes a frenzied
ride and comes to a sudden stop for an extended cadenza on the violin.
The "end of time" music sneaks back in, and the sonata ends with an echo
of the opening rising theme.

Shostakovich completed his only violin sonata in 1968.  It shows the
marks of his interest in dodecaphonic music, piqued by his friendship
with Benjamin Britten and by his encounters with his own students.  The
government still officially frowned on this sort of thing, and I'm sure
Shostakovich did very little to point it out, since he managed to get
it published and recorded.  I recall fondly Oistrakh and Richter on
EMI/Melodya, which may have constituted its premiere.  The twelve-tone
stuff shouldn't bar anyone from being emotionally overwhelmed by this
score.  It all sounds like late Shostakovich.  Phrasing is traditional.
Climaxes arrive at the expected places.  If you can handle the 13th and
14th symphonies, you can certainly stand up to this.  This and the
even-later Viola Sonata stand among Shostakovich's greatest works.

The players begin with a lament, the violin emphasizing its middle and
low range.  Immediately, one notices the spare, even thin texture - often
two lines, sometimes down to one.  A "Jewish" section follows, a slow
klezmer-like dance.  Weinberg, incidentally, introduced Shostakovich to
Eastern European klezmer, which bore fruit most famously in Shostakovich's
song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry.  The sonata differs from that earlier
work in that one finds very little joy.  Indeed, it dawns on you that
you've stepped into the middle of a dance of death, and the movement
grows ever more haunted as it winds and weeps to its conclusion.

The second movement explodes in a brutal, barbaric dance.  Anger shoots
off of it in waves, too much, really, to come down to the merely personal.
Shostakovich himself characterized this entire sonata as a meditation
on death.  Shostakovich builds in powerful asymmetries, inserting gaps
into the line as if snatching a breath between the rants.  In this
movement, apocalyptic in scope, you can hear the screams and almost see
the pale horse and the pale rider.

As devastating as the sonata has been so far, the finale crowns the work.
It's essentially a set of variations with more than a hint of passacaglia.
However, it's where Shostakovich leaves you emotionally rather than the
structure per se that accounts for its glory.  Shostakovich doesn't try
to force transcendence or wallow in self-pity.  This is essentially an
heroic, but clear-eyed look into the abyss.  One feels the mystery of
death and the acceptance of that mystery.  What is nothingness like?
Since we are never conscious of it, not even in death, that particular
door remains closed.

I made the acquaintance of the Shostakovich sonata through the Oistrakh
and Richter recording, the year the composer wrote the score.  It's been
a faithful friend all this time, but to me Blacher and Nemtsov surpass
it.  It may be a question of standing on the shoulders of giants, but
the new team penetrates the score more deeply.  Oistrakh and Richter get
the heroism inherent in the music, but it's a sunnier view.  Blacher and
Nemtsov get more of the horror, and their heroism seems more mature.  I
believe the Weinberg sonatas receive their first recording, and it's a
fine start.  However, Weinberg is as deep as Shostakovich.  More people
taking him up will reveal more of the music.

Steve Schwartz

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