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8.573190 - WEINBERG, M.: Symphony No. 18 / Trumpet Concerto (Balio, St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, V. Lande)
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996)
Mieczysław Weinberg was born on 8 December 1919 in Warsaw, 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, soon after the Nazi invasion, he 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, the 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 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 an increasing number of performances and recordings, and has been held in ever greater regard as a substantial continuation of the Russian symphonic tradition.
Although their number is relatively modest, Weinberg’s concertos still make for a viable overview of his output. Among the most substantial is the Trumpet Concerto, written during 1966–67 and premièred in Moscow on 6 January 1968 by Timofey Dokshitser and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. In three movements, this is among the composer’s most diverse works from the period—ranging from pointillist textures invoking the modernist currents then prominent in Soviet music, to elements of the sardonic and the grotesque such as evoke that heady period prior to Socialist Realism. Not for nothing did Shostakovich consider this work a ‘symphony for trumpet and orchestra’.
The first movement, Etudes, opens with nonchalant scales from the soloist which are seconded by the orchestra—the music duly opening out into an animated repartee between these two forces that abounds in rhythmic syncopation and quirky orchestration. A central section is initiated by a more inward response from the soloist against pizzicato strings, and while this soon builds to a hectic dance with percussion to the fore, the soloist responds even more inwardly over a backdrop of muted strings and harp. The initial activity presently continues—soloist and orchestra vying for attention as the scalic writing at the beginning is recalled and the music heads towards a sardonic while undeniably decisive close.
The second movement, Episodes, immediately denotes a greater seriousness of purpose with its intensive polyphonic writing for strings, offset by the wistful tones of a flute whose melodic line is taken up by the soloist (muted), together with upper strings and woodwind. Towards midpoint, the mood intensifies as wind and percussion introduce a martial tone that is assumed imperiously by the soloist, but this is offset by the flute over pizzicato strings in dialogue with the soloist and side-drum stealthily in attendance. The music gradually regains its earlier poise, a repeated gesture from the soloist sounding ominously before, over a quiet pedal-point, flute then piccolo and harp effect a calmly expectant close.
The third movement, Fanfares, ensues without pause—the soloist’s repeated gesture proving to have Mendelssohnian overtones, which are continued with echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky among others. An elaborate cadenza unfolds, accompanied in the main by woodblock and side drum, which leads into an obliquely elegant dialogue where the soloist is partnered by a succession of solo wind, string and percussion—all the while making reference back to the handful of quotes heard at the beginning. Towards the close the soloist touches musingly upon the scales heard at the work’s very opening, before this most unlikely of finales is rounded off by a single conclusive chord from percussion.
Among the most significant projects of Weinberg’s later years is a symphonic trilogy which was given the collective title On the Threshold of War—reflecting the traumas of the Soviet Union (and indirectly that of Poland, from which he was forced to flee in September 1939) during the Great Patriotic War of 1940–45, as well as a need for Soviet composers to embody the eventual Socialist victory that persisted almost to the end of the Soviet era. Not that Weinberg’s trilogy is in any sense an establishment undertaking: both outer symphonies, the Seventeenth ‘Memory’ and the Nineteenth ‘Bright May’ [Naxos 8.572752], are purely orchestral works which bear epigraphs by the once ostracized poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), while the Eighteenth ‘War—there is no word more cruel’ features a chorus in settings from Sergey Orlov (1921–77) and Alexander Tvardovsky (1910–71)—poets, it might be noted, whose initially ‘official’ writings soon became more inward and questioning—which frame a text derived from folk sources. Composed during 1982–84, the piece was given its first performance at the Moscow Autumn Festival in October 1985, with the Latvian State Academic Chorus and the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev (who had given the premières of almost all Weinberg’s symphonies since the Thirteenth and continued to advocate the composer’s music throughout his last years and beyond).
The work is in four continuous movements. The first is purely orchestral—opening with meditative writing for divided lower strings before trombones and trumpets make a ceremonial entrance. After a pause, the music resumes with aspects of both ideas combined before the former returns on upper strings and solo woodwind—the pensive mood continuing until strings pursue an intensive threnody that brings the first climax and launches an animated motion for strings and brass which gains inexorably in dynamism as it reaches a powerful culmination on full orchestra underpinned by organ. This subsides into fragmented gestures, then an eloquent passage for muted strings provides the introspective postlude.
The second movement, setting Orlov’s commemorative verses, begins with unaccompanied voices (and pursues a similar thematic trajectory to that of its predecessor) then quickly gains in expressive plagency. This dies down to leave strings and woodwind musing in its wake—with oboe, horn and bells unfolding an atmospheric dialogue. The chorus re-enters and the emotional import rises as voices and orchestra underscore each other in measured tread, but any climax is short lived as the music returns to wistful exchanges between solo woodwind over a sombre backdrop on strings. Repeated gestures from woodwind and strings alternate with sparse gestures from solo strings as a point of near stasis is reached.
The third movement, setting a folk (evidently war time) text, commences with piquant writing for female voices that are joined by their male counterparts and upper woodwind over stealthy lower strings. Solo voices periodically emerge from out of the choral texture, as if to point up the text’s personal connotations, then brass and percussion enter as the music gains in urgency—the orchestra continuing in ever more hectic terms until the chorus re-emerges to bring about the main climax. Forceful exchanges between brass and timpani are curtailed to leave the voices unaccompanied. A passage for divided strings and harp restores serenity, organ adding a deep pedal and percussion hinting at the now distant activity.
The fourth movement, setting Tvardovsky’s admonitory lines, unfolds in divided voices high above the mainly discreet accompaniment of muted brass-mezzos then sopranos having the melodic line. This swells into a brief upsurge, before the voices intermingle as a conclusion is reached whose calm is pervaded by the knowledge of what ‘War’ has entailed.
Transliterations and translations by Anastasia Belina-Johnson
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