About this Recording
8.572779 - WEINBERG, M.: Symphony No. 6 / Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes (Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir, St. Petersburg State Symphony, Lande)

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996)
Symphony No 6, Op 79 • Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op 47, No 1


Mieczysław Weinberg was born in Warsaw on 8 December 1919, where he studied as a pianist until the Nazi occupation saw him flee to Minsk (in the course of which, his documents were inscribed as Moisey Vainberg, under which name he was ‘officially’ known until 1982). During 1939–41 he studied with Vasily Zolotaryov then, after the Nazi invasion, headed east to Tashkent. There he wrote his First Symphony, which impressed Shostakovich and led to his settling in Moscow. In spite of various setbacks (his father-in-law, actor Solomon Mikhoels, was executed in 1948 and he himself was imprisoned prior to Stalin’s death), he built a reputation as a composer championed by leading Soviet musicians. Official honours aside, however, his fortunes declined over his final two decades and his death in Moscow on 26 February 1996 passed largely unnoticed. Since then his output, central to which are 26 symphonies and seventeen string quartets, has been held in increasingly high regard.

Although Weinberg amassed 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 those that are currently missing) of a more descriptive nature. Most of the latter emerged in the fraught period from the aftermath of the Second World War to the death of Stalin, when Soviet composers came under pressure to rid their music of overtly ‘formalist’ or abstract elements. Having been castigated in the fall-out from the First Congress of Soviet Composers in April 1948, Weinberg turned increasingly to works based on folk and traditional sources in his search for a positive compromise to official dictates. Much the most successful was the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, a highly cohesive medley of tunes emanating from his mother’s region of origin, written near the end of 1948 and first heard in Moscow on 30 November 1949 with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra and Alexander Gauk.

A sombre theme on lower strings is presently joined by a plaintive oboe melody with pronounced folk-music inflections, taken over by clarinet before the upper strings have a haltingly expressive theme over pizzicato accompaniment. This expands passionately over full orchestra, then horn and strings continue the prevailing melancholy as the music steadily gains in animation with the arrival of brass and percussion, soon arriving at a soulful version of the strings’ theme before an interlude with muted horn restores calm. Oboe then clarinet lingers over this idea, before strings launch into a pulsating dance joined by brass and percussion as it pursues its hectic course. Over pounding lower strings the brass intone the strings’ earlier theme, then the excitement abates as flute and violin engage in whimsical dialogue—reaching a point of repose from where a crescendo on strings soon regains the earlier energy and the piece closes with the dance theme unstoppable across the whole orchestra.

Despite his being among the most prolific of twentieth-century symphonists, Weinberg’s contribution to the genre only really hit its stride when his Fourth Symphony, composed in 1957, was given its première in 1961 by Kirill Kondrashin. The first performance later that year of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, a quarter of a century after its completion, saw a renewed interest in symphonic form by the younger generation of Soviet composers: not least Weinberg, whose Fifth Symphony was written in 1962 and given its première later that year by Kondrashin. Having created what has come to be regarded as a high-point of abstract symphonism, Weinberg proceeded to open out the possibilities of the genre; his Sixth Symphony, completed in 1963 and first performed on 12 November that year by Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boys’ Choir of the Moscow Choral School, being the first of six symphonies to feature a prominent vocal component.

Although Weinberg was no doubt influenced in his approach to the ‘Jewish Question’ by Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, given its controversial première at the end of 1962, the deployment of boys’ voices only (along with the dedication to his daughter Victoria) gives his own work a greater intimacy and expressive poise. Nor is this a wholly choral symphony, with the lengthy first movement and strident third movement being purely orchestral. The second movement is a setting of Lev Kvitko (1890–1952), while the fourth and fifth movements set texts by Samuil Galkin (1897–1960) and Mikhail Lukonin (1918–1976) respectively. Traditional formal archetypes, both in individual movements and over the symphony as a whole, are treated with notable freedom, yet the sense of music that charts a course from innocence to experience can be perceived at both a symphonic and an emotional level: which aspect no doubt impressed Shostakovich, who used the work as teaching material in his own classes.

The first movement starts with a pensive horn melody over strings and accompanied by woodwind, to which the violins respond with a hesitant theme over spare pizzicato chords which only gradually expands to encompass the rest of the strings before being continued by cellos as the sombre mood intensifies. Woodwind and brass enter as the music builds inexorably toward an emotional apex on horns and trumpets, the strings continuing reticently over a timpani role before solo flute emerges with a capricious arabesque that is latterly transferred to solo horn then clarinet, before lower strings resume with the earlier theme as it reaches a plateau of eloquent polyphony before withdrawing into a softly unresolved dissonance on flute and strings.

The second movement sets a Kvitko poem which epitomizes care-free youth—a boy making a violin from scraps upon which he plays to an audience of animals and birds. It opens with a whimsical idea shared between the woodwind and strings which serves as a basis for the nonchalant theme that the choir now takes up against a sparse yet telling instrumental backdrop. Woodwind and percussion add a vital rhythmic injection that gradually plays itself out, leaving solo oboe then violin to muse uncertainly over timpani before the choir resumes with more fragmentary phrases. Solo violin fleetingly reappears prior to a reveille on trumpet and percussion, with an unexpectedly forceful conclusion.

The third movement begins with a rhythmically trenchant theme on brass and percussion, strings joining them in a hectic dance that soon draws in the whole orchestra for almost the first time in the work. This continues as a series of energetic exchanges, timpani at length initiating a quirkily sardonic theme for upper woodwind and strings, with just the occasional interjection on xylophone, before the earlier theme is intently resumed by woodwind and strings, the music once again involving the full forces on its way to an aggressive close.

The fourth movement (a subtle reworking of the fifth number from Weinberg’s Jewish Songs of 1944) sets a Galkin poem to evoke an image of graphic reflection—where the home once stood is now a graveyard for the murdered children, and will one day serve as a memorial to future generations. It starts with violent fanfares on brass and percussion, subsiding to reveal the choir in a plaintive mood which soon becomes more anguished as the expression intensifies. From here the movement dies down for an evocative passage featuring celesta and woodwind, building to a baleful climax on brass and timpani that collapses into a more consolatory passage with the main theme now on woodwind as the music leads directly into the next movement.

The fifth movement sets a Lukonin poem as a lullaby in which the children of the present and the future, from the Mississippi to the Mekong, are bid sleep in the confidence of a bright and productive tomorrow. It opens with a ruminative idea high in violins and offset by pert woodwind gestures. From here the choir enters with a theme whose wistful manner is enhanced by the woodwind and given further gravitas with its spare accompaniment on lower strings. Elements that were heard earlier tentatively reappear as the choir falls silent and the music loses any remaining impetus, with solo violin rhapsodizing over lower strings and timpani as a virtual stasis is reached. Horn and strings return to their melody from the very beginning, the work ending with a soft dissonance on woodwind and strings that now provides a sense of closure.

Richard Whitehouse

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