About this Recording
8.572752 - WEINBERG, M.: Symphony No. 19 / The Banners of Peace (St. Petersburg State Symphony, Lande)

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996)
Symphony No 19 ‘Bright May’, Op 142 • The Banners of Peace, Op 143


Mieczysław Weinberg was born in Warsaw on 8 December 1919, where he emerged as a highly regarded pianist. He 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). During 1939–41 he studied composition with Vasily Zolotaryov then, following the Nazi invasion, headed 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, actor Solomon Mikhoels, was executed in 1948 and he himself was briefly imprisoned for alleged Jewish subversion prior to the death of Stalin in 1953), he gradually amassed a reputation as a composer who was championed by many of the leading Soviet singers, instrumentalists and conductors.

Despite several official honours Weinberg’s fortunes declined notably over his final two decades, not least owing to the emergence of a younger generation of composers whose perceived antagonism to the Soviet establishment ensured them a much greater coverage in the West, and his death in Moscow on 26 February 1996 went all but unnoticed. Since then, however, his output—which comprises 26 symphonies and seventeen string quartets, along with seven operas, some two dozen song-cycles and a wealth of chamber and instrumental music—has received a rapidly increasing number of performances and recordings, and has been held in ever greater regard for its notable continuation of the Russian symphonic tradition.

If the majority of Weinberg’s symphonies from his final two decades fall between the ‘abstract’ and the ‘programmatic’, the trilogy that is Nos 17–19 presents an interesting synthesis. Subtitled ‘On the Threshold of War’, it surrounds a vocal piece with two purely orchestral works. Symphony No 19 (1985) is subtitled ‘Bright May’ (though ‘Joyous May’ makes for an equally viable translation) and is prefaced with a quotation from the 1945 poem The Victory by Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), a writer who often found herself at loggerheads with Soviet officialdom though her work was undergoing a degree of rehabilitation through the auspices of Mikhail Gorbachev’s recently inaugurated policy of Glasnost:

Victory is at our door.
How to welcome this long-awaited guest?
Women will raise their babies
Who have been saved from thousands of deaths –
This will be the best salute

This is a symphony that views May not in terms of a national holiday but as the month in which the ‘Great Patriotic War’ came to an end, with the note of apprehension as keenly underlined as that of celebration. Unlike its two four-movement predecessors, moreover, it unfolds as a single span whose content proceeds inevitably from its opening (to which end, the three tracks allotted the work here should be taken as access points rather than as formal demarcations). The première was given at the Moscow Autumn Festival on 23 November 1986 by the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev (who championed Weinberg’s music assiduously, giving the first performances of no fewer than six of his later symphonies).

The work begins [1] with trenchant writing for strings to which brass and timpani add a harmonic underpinning, the music all the while gaining in expressive weight before woodwind and brass gradually emerge out of the texture. The tension eases as solo woodwind share a pastoral dialogue that soon passes to the upper strings, then brass and percussion enter as the music gains in rhythmic energy towards a brief climax before returning to the earlier pastoral manner. This in turn tails off into hesitant exchanges between strings and woodwind, dying away to reveal [2] an eloquent threnody for strings with atmospheric touches from woodwind. This passes into ominous writing for the lower woodwind over quietly pulsating pizzicato strings, its distinctive rhythmic profile latterly taken up by strings and brass as the piece heads towards its central climax—with the salient rhythms expounded across the whole orchestra in aggressively martial terms before culminating in thunderous exchanges between brass and percussion. This dies down toward a general pause, from which solo woodwind and divided strings muse thoughtfully on the initial music as if in wistful recollection. This pauses briefly, then [3] strings continue in searching polyphony towards an ecstatic culmination with bells to the fore. Solo horn and strings then converse resignedly over a gentle harp ostinato with whimsical asides from flutes, a further climax being swiftly curtailed to leave solo clarinet with limpid phrases which gradually overcome any remaining tension as solo horn and piccolo continue against gently capricious strings. Over a sombre chord deep in the lower strings, woodwind and brass trade ever sparser exchanges until any residual activity has died away against airborne upper strings.

While Weinberg was to amass a large number of orchestral works, the vast majority are symphonies or at least symphonic in scope, with only a dozen or so pieces (not including several which are currently missing) of a more descriptive nature. Despite the relative success that his music enjoyed during the 1960s and 1970s, Weinberg was never a ‘Party’ figure or one able to attract support from Communist officialdom. The number of pieces commemorating official occasions are correspondingly few in number, though two such works emerged relatively late on. One of these is the ‘festive poem’ The Banners of Peace (1985), written immediately after the Nineteenth Symphony, dedicated to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and first performed in Moscow on 23 February 1986, once again by the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra with Vladimir Fedoseyev. Here the musical conception, despite an essentially positive and outgoing manner which is rather at odds with the increasingly introspective manner of his later music, is appreciably well removed from the propagandistic—not least the way in which fragments from traditional and revolutionary songs (several of them also to be found in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony) have been drawn into the overall texture so as to become mere constituents in a broadly cumulative span of music that fulfils without drawing attention to its purpose.

Robust chant-like writing for strings sets the work in motion, horns and woodwind then opening out the texture before brass and percussion round off the initial paragraph. The pace duly picks up as strings and brass engage in ever more animated exchanges, urged on by woodwind and percussion, before the brass alight on a chorale-like idea that also brings an easing of activity. The music now heads into an expressive passage for strings, itself cut short to make way for elegiac exchanges between lower and upper strings with the haunting addition of celesta and a soulful contribution from clarinet. Livelier comments from oboe then flute and bassoon presently emerge, the strings seizing on their nagging rhythm as the music gains in impetus with brass and percussion once more to the fore, before the earlier poise is regained. From here the strings make an elegant transition, with echoes of the very opening, to further animated writing which soon draws in the whole orchestra as the work’s climax is reached: strings sounding forth in soulful terms with rhetorical interjections from brass, the latter urging the music on to a brazenly affirmative close whose most notable aspect is its evident lack of irony.

Richard Whitehouse

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