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GP611 - WEINBERG, M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 4 (Brewster Franzetti)
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MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (1919–96)
COMPLETE PIANO WORKS • 4

 

The young Weinberg’s dramatic escapes from the Nazis from Warsaw in September 1939 and Minsk in June 1941, and his relocation from Tashkent to Moscow in August 1943, were followed by a period of relative stability in his personal life and an extraordinary burst of creative vitality. Between 1944 and 1946 his output includes four string quartets (Nos 3–6), a violin sonata, a piano trio, a piano quintet, a symphony, and five collections of songs, all of which count among his finest achievements.

Similarly the Piano Sonata No 3, Op 31, composed in the space of a week (29 January to 4 February 1946), represents a conspicuous advance on its predecessors in terms of depth of expression and structural mastery. It is dedicated to his friend, the composer Lev Abeliovich. They had met as students at the Warsaw Conservatory, and in Minsk they completed Vasily Zolotaryov’s composition class together. The three-movement work is rooted in the exotic key of G sharp minor, which was something of a favourite of Weinberg’s around this time (possibly inspired by the central section from the third movement of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, and similarly marked by an abrasive combination of lamentation and protest).

The first movement sets forth in a lyricised-neo-classical manner that Weinberg could easily have inherited from Prokofiev’s Fifth Sonata or Shostakovich’s Second, though it steers its own steady course between the detachment of the former and the bipolar oppositions of the latter. This Allegro tranquillo (an apparently paradoxical but not so rare marking—Tchaikovsky used it, for example, for the opening movement of his First Symphony, albeit in a far more genial context) presents two unusual features: an Adagio ‘buffer-zone’ whose shocked stillness reacts to the aggression into which the development section has strayed; and a martial protesting coda, which is also suddenly slower than the main body of the movement, and which features a melody consisting entirely of trills, ending on a tone of quiet defiance.

As if to probe and ultimately exorcise the darkness that haunts the first movement, the central Adagio consists of a set of variations in the archetypal Russian-tragic key of E flat minor. The theme itself is more or less unvaried, but its background is skilfully varied. This is one of Weinberg’s most stoical musical laments, combining as it does something of the tortuous chromaticism of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata with the variation form of that same work’s finale. Without a break, the finale presents an austere fugue in three voices, which gradually develops a fine tension between counterpoint and declamation, before its energies burn out and the introductory phrase from the second movement returns to sign off this exceptionally severe work with a grave tierce de picardie. The Third Sonata was given its première on 5 October 1946 in the Lesser Hall of the Moscow Conservatory by Mariya Grinberg.

In 1950–51 Shostakovich produced his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87, and the impact of this milestone in Soviet piano music can be felt throughout Weinberg’s last two numbered sonatas. The Piano Sonata No 5, Op 58, was written from 11 October to 21 November 1956, dedicated to Weinberg’s composer-friend Boris Chaykovsky, and given its première on 9 November 1958 by Leonid Brumberg, an eminent pianist and professor of piano at the Gnesin Institute, who emigrated to Israel in the 1970s. In the entire piano literature it would be hard to find another sonata that begins with a passacaglia, especially one that runs to no fewer than 603 bars (Balakirev’s Sonata, which starts with a fugal exposition, could perhaps be said to have paved the way). Here the model for musical character, and indeed for some of the harmonic detail, is the final D minor Prelude and Fugue from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Op 87, already a godfather to the equally grand-scale and intransigent last movement of Weinberg’s Partita, Op 54, while the strict passacaglia design echoes the G sharp minor Prelude from that same Shostakovich cycle. (Weinberg himself had tried out a free variant on the passacaglia principle in the walking bass of the central movement of his piano Sonatina, Op 49, composed 1950–51). In the final intensification, the passacaglia theme appears in a two-stage diminution, concluding the movement on a note of physical excitement.

The following Andante begins in the manner of a slow, exploratory march, which then transforms into a sort of chorale, strongly echoing the finale of Shostakovich’s Second Sonata. The rest of the movement hovers between these two characters, sustaining a mood of severe meditation and ending in extreme reticence and guardedness. This mood carries over into the Allegretto finale, a sonata-rondo whose middle stages owe much of their character to the demanding octave figurations of the G major Prelude from Shostakovich’s Op 87. The Fifth Sonata closes impressively with echoes of the opening passacaglia in a ruminative pianissimo, rounding off another stern and emotionally circumspect work.

Valentin Berlinsky (1925–2008), the famous, long-standing cellist of the Borodin Quartet, was one of Weinberg’s staunchest musical friends. According to the composer’s widow, Olga Rakhalskaya, in 1983 Berlinsky’s daughter Ludmila, later to become a well-known chamber-pianist, was preparing for an examination in stylistic composition and ran into difficulties, whereupon Weinberg offered to compose a couple of fugues for her. Without her father’s knowledge, on 21 June, the evening before the examination, he produced two four-voice fugues, with all the academic trimmings but—perhaps with the mild subterfuge in mind—by no means constant harmonic felicity.

The two-movement Piano Sonata No 6, Op 73 was composed between 6 March and 31 August 1960 and first performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 26 February 1964 by the Georgian pianist Marina Mdivani, a student of Gilels and winner of the Marguerite Long Competition in Paris in 1961.

The Adagio opening functions as a statuesque prelude that heralds a more personal andante lament before returning to close the frame. The mysterious grumbling figure heard shortly before that return becomes one of the main ideas in the Allegro molto second movement. This is again a sort of fugue, albeit one with an obsessive subject and extended contrasting episodes. The insistent repeated notes that are one of the chief thematic impulses in the Sonata as a whole slowly but surely drive the music towards a mighty climax, eventually rounding off Weinberg’s cycle of numbered piano sonatas in magnificent style. It is remarkable that in the remaining 36 years of his life, apart from revising the Sonatina, Op 49, as a full-blown Sonata (but without allocating it a number or a new opus designation), Weinberg was never again to compose any music of significance for his own instrument.


David Fanning


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