In the Matter of M. Weinberg

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

He escaped, and not just once. The outward circumstances of his life read like a spy thriller. Born in Warsaw to Russian Jewish parents active in the Yiddish theatre, Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996) graduated from the conservatory there in 1939. Shortly after the Germans invaded Poland, Weinberg fled to Minsk, where he continued his studies; his family remained behind, eventually dying in a concentration camp. Once Russia itself was threatened, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent. There he met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a lifelong friend. In 1943 Weinberg moved to Moscow and lived there happily for the rest of his life.

Except, of course, for a long period when he was first harassed, then imprisoned by the Stalin regime for the crime of writing “insufficiently optimistic” music; officials found it wanting in proletarian exaltation but reeking of Jewishness. The harassment began in 1946 with condemnations of Weinberg and his colleague Yuri Levitin for “formalism,” but in Weinberg’s case this was linked to suspicious associations: his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels, an outspoken activist, was murdered on Stalin’s orders in 1948 as part of the anti-Semitic Doctors’ Plot. Around that time, Russian agents began to tail the composer, who was finally arrested in February 1953 and charged with committing “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” Had it not been for Stalin’s death a month later, Weinberg, like so many others, might simply have vanished. Shostakovich interceded on his behalf, and he was released after spending eleven weeks in prison.

To what extent does Weinberg’s music reflect his tumultuous life? As you will see, this is not necessarily a frivolous question. I ask it because the recent Weinberg boomlet takes full advantage of his life story. There’s more to it, of course: Weinberg was a prolific composer who wrote in accessible post-Romantic style. Unlike his heroes Shostakovich and Mahler, he did not churn out music quite so laden with irony, bitter humor, or general pathos (although he was pretty good at pathos, general and otherwise). More often than not, Weinberg leavened the bitter with the sweet: lots of lyrical, oft-repeated melodies, interesting counterpoint you can actually follow, and folk elements (remember, his parents made a living in popular theatre). These days, people who’ve exhausted Liszt, Bruckner, and Rachmaninov can pivot toward Weinberg as a reliable source of Romanticism. Let’s explore that.

Beginners may want to start with Weinberg’s solo and chamber music, including his popular Piano Quintet , op. 18 (1944). Although he wrote 26 symphonies and six operas, bringing him a degree of (Russian) public recognition, the smaller works better represent his compositional persona. He knew his friends would gratefully play his next violin sonata, string quartet, piano piece. He knew those works, even when marked by personal experience or social critique, were less likely to attract official disapproval. He could simply pour his heart into the music and see it eagerly received.

Inspired by Shostakovich’s 1940 Piano Quintet, Weinberg’s Quintet reveals a man—here we go with the biographical elements!—happy finally to have arrived in Moscow but also keenly aware of the suffering in Poland and his own family’s uncertain status. An ambiguous, murmuring figure introduces melodies that vacillate between longing and glimpses of sunlight:

Furtive gestures tossed between piano and strings dominate the second movement, in which pizzicati and spidery piano filigree eventually culminate in high drama. Perhaps that prepares us for the grotesque scherzo, which more baldly evokes Mahler’s fun-house-mirror sensibility:

We have been listening to a new recording of this work from pianist Jeanne Golan and the Attacca Quartet (Steinway & Sons 30072). In four of its five movements, they deliver a more satisfying account than in another recent recording of the Quintet, this from Piotr Sałajczyk and the Silesian Quartet (Accord ACD 239–2). The Attaccas’ timings for individual movements are usually at least a minute longer than those clocked by the Silesians. Yet there’s never a sense of lethargy; rather they use the extra time to provide nuance, weight, sensitivity, and—of all things—musically justified momentum.

Sałajczyk and the Silesians do better in the final movement, a virtuoso tour de force:

That movement marks the only appearance of a quasi-Irish jig and a touch of boogie-woogie. Thematically, it’s the weakest material in the work, Weinberg trying his hand at False Joy à la Shostakovich. He manages to bring things almost to a boil before losing steam, at which point the mournful music of the first movement returns. Ghosts and shadows get the last word.

The Attacca Quartet album includes Cello Sonata No. 2, featuring Andrew Yee, and the lovely Sonatina op. 49 (1950–51) for piano. The Silesian Quartet album (part of an effort by the Polish Ministry of Culture to reclaim “Wajnberg,” their native son), includes String Quartet No. 7. Both are reasonably well recorded. In what may be a first, engineer Lauren Sturm recorded Attacca’s album and served as piano technician; Dan Shores edited, mixed, and mastered, a bona fide hat trick.

If you heard the Silesians’ performance of String Quartet No. 7 and liked that—and you should, because it’s the true centerpiece of their album, a raging, heartfelt lament—you may want to explore the other quartets. If you heard and liked Cello Sonata No. 2, I recommend the violin sonatas: Grigory Kalinovsky, Starling Professor of Violin at Indiana University, has recorded all six plus the Sonatina op. 46 for Naxos (8.572320/21). He and pianist Tatiana Goncharova tastefully bring out much of this music’s essential character, including its moderating tendencies, and the recorded sound is warm and clear. If you want greater intensity, Gidon Kremer is available, albeit in small quantities: with Martha Argerich he toured Sonata No. 5 op. 53, written in 1953, an annus horribilis for Weinberg (alas, more biography!). Several bootlegs of the Kremer/Argerich performances are floating around, but Warner Classics’ Live from Lugano 2014 offers better sound and less audience noise:

Kremer also recorded Sonata No. 3 op. 126, for solo violin—a genre the composer launched late in his career—as part of a Live from Lockenhaus album (ECM 2368/69; both of Kremer’s Weinberg albums for ECM are recommendable).

The Weinberg cello sonata could also lead you toward his Cello Concerto op. 43 (1948), which gets a bang-up reading from Nicolas Altstaedt for Channel Classics (CCS 38116). Listen to the klezmer stylings in the second movement:

I mentioned a Weinberg solo violin sonata above: Linus Roth has recorded all three for Challenge (CC72688); he also essayed the complete violin-and-piano sonatas with colleague José Gallardo (Challenge CC72567). Besides being comprehensive, these two collections feature high-resolution sound. Roth is a passionate performer, so the high-res doesn’t go to waste.

Speaking of comprehensive, pianist Elisaveta Blumina is on track to record all of Weinberg’s piano music. Her fourth Weinberg CD for cpo (555 104-2) features an interesting mix of early, middle, and late: Sonata No. 2 op. 8 (1940), Sonata op. 49b (1950–51; rev. 1978), and Sonata No. 4 op. 56 (1955). I found the Mozartian style of No. 2 especially attractive:

The most “advanced” music on this disc stems from Weinberg’s having turned the Sonatina op. 49 (see above) into the longer Sonata, op. 49b. In the process, the composer incorporated tone clusters and modernist harmony:

Here’s where things got confusing, at least for the person writing Blumina’s liner notes. The music of op. 49b was described as “appealing and melodious,” “meet[ing] the demands of Socialist Realism.” Presumably that had been cribbed from notes on the earlier Sonatina op. 49, to which it more readily applies. But the second movement of op. 49b—heard above—was also referenced for its “strong, almost threateningly alarming chords” (i.e., the writer had no idea what to make of it). Moving right along, our writer labeled the carefully balanced Sonata No. 4 “the most tragic of Weinberg’s piano compositions,” one that “most grippingly reflects Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.”

As far as I know, Weinberg made no such claim himself. From the Adagio of No. 4:

Perhaps it’s time to call a moratorium on art-as-autobiography, especially for Weinberg. His music is not without expressive depth, but it seldom shocks or mocks; his approach was essentially conservative—and that’s worth further thought. We shouldn’t automatically assume specific connections between every angry tune, every brutal rhythm, and every painful moment in a life. Weinberg’s stylistic restraint over a long, prolific career may actually serve as the truest reflection of his experience. Having survived a horrific era, he persisted in creating things of beauty. He doesn’t need simple-minded “explainers.” Let the music speak for itself.

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