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8.572320-21 - WEINBERG, M.: Violin Sonatas (Complete) / Violin Sonatina (Kalinovsky, Goncharova)

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996)
Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano • Violin Sonatina


Mieczysław Weinberg was born in Warsaw on 8th December 1919, where he emerged as a highly regarded pianist who might well have continued his studies in the United States until the Nazi occupation saw him flee to Minsk (in the course of which his travel documents were inscribed as Moisey Vainberg, by which name he was ‘officially’ known until 1982). From 1939 until 1941 he studied composition with Vasily Zolotaryov then, after the Nazi invasion, headed much further east to Tashkent where he immersed himself in theatrical and operatic projects. There he also wrote his First Symphony, which favourably impressed Shostakovich and resulted in his settling in Moscow in 1943 where he was to remain for the rest of his life. In spite of numerous personal setbacks (his father-in-law, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered in 1948 then Weinberg himself was imprisoned for alleged ‘Jewish subversion’ and released only after the death of Stalin in 1953), he gradually built a reputation as a composer who was championed by many of the leading Soviet singers, instrumentalists and conductors.

Despite receiving numerous official honours, Weinberg’s fortunes declined notably during his final two decades, not least due to the emergence of a younger generation of composers whose perceived antagonism to the Soviet establishment gained them much greater coverage in the West, and his death in Moscow on 26th February 1996 went largely unnoticed. Since then, however, his output—which comprises 26 symphonies and 17 string quartets, together with seven operas, some two dozen song cycles and a wealth of chamber and instrumental music—has gained a rapidly increasing number of performances and recordings, and is now held in ever greater regard as a significant continuation of the Russian symphonic tradition.

Although the violin sonatas are not as central to Weinberg’s output as either his symphonies or his string quartets, whether in number or significance, they are crucial to his evolution across the first two decades of their composer’s distinctive while frequently elusive musical idiom.

The First Violin Sonata (1943) sounds less sure of itself formally or expressively than either the first two piano sonatas [Grand Piano GP603] or the First Symphony, as Weinberg struggles to wrest sufficient momentum from material that tends toward understatement or the overtly passive. The opening Allegro begins with a speculative theme that presently becomes more animated in its dialogue between violin and piano. A pert transition leads to the more elegant while still restless second theme, the music duly returning to its initial mood at the start of a charged and eventful development then the curtailed and subtly modified reprise. Relatively lengthy in this context, the coda touches on aspects of both themes as it heads to an uncertain close. The Adagietto centres upon an eloquent melody which unfolds at length towards a rapt central section introduced by piano. This builds to a fervent climax then returns to the initial melody for an intensified statement, followed by a gently ascending coda. The final Allegro is launched with a stealthy idea on piano that initiates a lively discussion, its rhythmic outline informing the suave theme that follows. A heated confrontation ensues, then a questioning transition before the initial idea resumes; the accrued momentum carried over to a sustained climax, out of which emerges a brief coda which crystallises the mood of this work overall.

The Second Violin Sonata (1944) marks a notable advance in its integration of formal means and ends, touching on some of the composer’s keenest wartime emotion yet admitting of no false equivocation. The opening Allegro begins with a moderately paced theme which takes on greater impetus as it proceeds, its accumulated tension erupting in the incisive rhythmic gestures of the idea that follows. This brings about a heightened statement of the first theme that again takes on greater emotional force as it unfolds, but now the music heads into calmer if still uncertain expression before an equivocal close on undulating piano and terse pizzicato violin chords. The Lento centres on one of Weinberg’s most searching melodies, unfolded elegiacally by violin over a pensive piano figuration. Its central section introduces a graceful dance element, building to a heartfelt restatement of the main melody before dense chordal writing on piano effects a resigned conclusion with violin harmonics briefly to the fore. The final Allegro opens with a discreetly nonchalant theme whose rejoinder sounds a rather more anxious tone. The piano then leads off with an intense discussion of the initial theme, before the earlier poise is regained via an ironic transition. Aspects of both these themes are touched upon as the music assumes greater animation on the way to its surprisingly aggressive close.

The Third Violin Sonata (1947) finds Weinberg achieving an all-round assurance, perceptible in the flexible handling of content within each of the (progressively longer) movements. The influence of Shostakovich is undeniable, as is the resourceful deployment of Jewish melodic elements. The opening Allegro opens with an undulating theme whose impetuous rejoinder provides the necessary contrast before the earlier gracefulness is resumed and a brief climax reached, thereby making the terse and wavering conclusion the more unexpected. The central Andantino commences with a lengthy and emotionally discursive piano section, expounding the main theme which the violin duly takes up then intensifies accordingly. The music briefly turns inward before building towards an impassioned dialogue that subsides into spectral pizzicatos and trills on the violin prior to the rapt ending. The finale commences with a gently taciturn theme that soon finds contrast in a martial idea which brings with it the work’s most confrontational music, and from whose peak the martial idea effects a brief transition to the initial ethereal theme on violin harmonics. There is no formal reprise: rather the martial idea resumes its angular course, then the initial theme is recalled prior to a violin ‘cadenza’ which leads into a coda that gently recalls the initial theme as this heads towards an affecting close.

The Fourth Violin Sonata (1947) attains a comparable mastery to its predecessor while also sounding like no other composer. Nominally in three separate movements (as tracked here), this is essentially a work of two halves—the latter two movements coalescing into a single entity initially contrasting with, before returning to, what went before. The opening Adagio is ushered in by sombre and tonally ambivalent piano writing, the violin only entering after two minutes with a searching theme which evolves into an introspective dialogue. Towards the mid-point the music opens out onto a more tangible expression, with halting violin gestures against repeated piano chords, but the inward mood prevails through to an uncertain close. The second movement then erupts in a whirlwind of hectic figuration from both instruments whose dense texture only assumes a more concrete thematic quality as the music proceeds. A headlong climax is reached, but this is soon curtailed to leave piano chords that announce the start of a finale whose initial violin ‘cadenza’ at length subsides into a limpid dialogue which revisits the mood (though not thematic material) of the first movement. From here the music glides towards an ending of spectral violin pizzicatos, so making for a conclusion as oblique though also as provocative as any of Weinberg’s string quartets (Nos. 3–6) from this period.

The upheaval following the ‘Zhdanov Decree’ of February 1948 saw Weinberg attempting in various ways to meet the demand for music of a more accessible and even a compliant nature. Arguably most successful is the Violin Sonatina (1949) that, if not forgoing the achievement of the earlier two sonatas, channels their expressive content along more direct and immediate routes. The opening Allegretto begins with an insouciant theme, made more so by its tripping accompaniment, with the rejoinder being more graceful while no less direct. Both themes are duly reprised in modified form, the former returning to round off this movement in plaintive fashion. The central Lento centres on a pensive and audibly folk-inflected theme that assumes greater emotional force as it unfolds. A piano transition leads into a scherzo section, in which this theme is transformed into a headlong and artfully humorous dialogue, before the slower tempo sets in once more and the music moves towards its bittersweet close. The final Allegro focuses on a theme whose sprightly syncopation proves to be both engaging and disarming, its successive phrases pertly alternated until the prevailing motion has subsided and the theme is transformed into an eloquent coda. Unlike the slighter later Piano Sonatina [Grand Piano GP607], Weinberg felt no need to overhaul a work already perfect in its formal proportions.

The Fifth Violin Sonata (1953) is the most symphonic of these works as well as Weinberg’s masterpiece for the medium, though it wears its ambitions lightly in music whose melodic subtlety conceals deeper and more probing emotion. The opening Andante must rank among the composer’s most affecting inspirations, its main theme stated by piano and violin in turn before touching on more tangible emotions. Around its mid-point the violin sounds a more anguished tone, but the music soon regains its elegiac character and heads toward a plaintive close. There follows an Allegro in which the contrasting main themes, lively and demure by turns, underpin a tensile sonata movement whose development builds to a vehement climax before the second theme lowers the intensity prior to a more restrained reprise then a tersely ambiguous ending. The Allegro that follows is a playful yet also sardonic intermezzo, muted violin engaging with piano in ribald dialogue that feigns deeper emotions before capering on to its pensive ending. The finale opens with musing violin arpeggios and halting piano chords that presently head into a winsome melody with more capricious asides. These latter presage the movement’s climax on piano, violin returning to steer the music into a reprise of the main theme then on to a coda where the work’s opening theme re-emerges for a touching farewell.

That Weinberg abandoned the duo medium at the end of the 1950s is well known, though his reasons for doing are by no means clear (his public appearances as pianist became rarer, even though his executive powers remained largely undimmed for another two decades). It may be significant that when the Sixth Violin Sonata (1982) finally emerged, it was unacknowledged in his catalogue (not helped by mistakenly sharing the same opus number as the Fourth Solo Viola Sonata) and was not relocated until 2007. Yet a work dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother can hardly have held other than deeply personal significance, while the piece itself evinces an innovative formal quality in that its nominal three movements unfold as a sustained arc of cumulative then dispersing intensity. The opening Moderato is launched by intensive violin writing which engages with piano only at the movement’s charged climax, at whose apex the violin falls silent and piano continues with increasing restraint through to an uncertain pause. The Adagio (5’51”) centres on a supplicatory dialogue whose increasing protestations bring about a return to the Moderato (8’21’’), then on to an anguished series of exchanges that ultimately collapse into repeated-note gestures. These are followed by a coda in which salient motifs are recalled in a fragmented as well as unmistakably fatalistic light.

Apart from this final piece, Weinberg’s violin sonatas were all premiered during his lifetime—though the First Sonata (dedicated to Solomon Mikhoels, actor and father of the composer’s first wife Nataliya) had to wait until 6th March 1965, when it was first performed by Valentin Zuk and Alexander Rossokhatsky; and the Second Sonata on 3rd January 1962 at the hands of dedicatee David Oistrakh and Frieda Bauer. The Third Sonata may have been given privately by its dedicatee Mikhail Fikhtengolts in 1947–48, and the Fourth Sonata only made its public debut in 1968 with dedicatee Leonid Kogan. The Sonatina (dedicated to the composer Boris Tchaikovsky) was first heard on 9th October 1955 with Kogan and Andrey Mitnik, while the Fifth Sonata (which bears no dedication) was premiered—alone among these pieces (which were otherwise first performed in Moscow)—in Leningrad by Mikhail Vaiman and Mariya Karandashova. All were published or reprinted by Peermusic, Hamburg in 2003 and 2009.

Richard Whitehouse

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