Feature review – Mieczysław Weinberg: Between East and West (Quatuor Danel)

Quatuor Danel [Marc Danel & Gilles Millet (violins), Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Yovan Markovitch (cello)], Michelle Assay (piano), Roberto Carrillo-Garcia  (double bass), Rosalind Dobson (soprano), David Fanning (piano)

Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall @ Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama
University of Manchester

Thursday 24th – Sunday 27th January 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The 17 string quartets of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) barely featured in more general discussion until recently, when the extent of their achievement has gradually become evident. Central to this has been the advocacy of the Quatuor Danel, whose integral recording (for the CPO label) during 2006-09 was followed by several live renditions before this one – given as part of the Weinberg: East and West conference co-convened by Prof David Fanning and Dr Michelle Assay and supported by the British Academy and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.

Although a science-based institution, Manchester University has an active music department and, in the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, a venue second to none for chamber performance – its spacious yet immediate acoustic ideally suited for the resourceful ensemble textures in which these string quartets abound. Weinberg is still often (and erroneously) referred to as a protégé of Shostakovich, but this cycle stands as the continuation of the lineage that takes in Beethoven and Bartók, and which itself represents a highpoint of European musical culture.

The cycle was launched on Thursday lunchtime. From a time when his career path was of a pianist, the ambition of the First Quartet (1937) is the more remarkable – doubtless a reason Weinberg subjected it to radical revision in 1985; refining its youthful awkwardness without diluting that heady aura indebted to Bartók and Szymanowski. The Danel assuredly captured its three movements’ emotional turmoil, wistful introspection then driving energy; the mature composer emerging in the finale, with its folk-inflections and teasing fragmentation towards the close.

The Second Quartet (1940) evinces greater formal and expressive poise; Weinberg revised it in 1986 as well as recasting it as his First Chamber Symphony. It remains one of his most appealing works, though the Danel’s impulsiveness prevented the first movement from seeming too ingratiating; an approach continued in an alternately contemplative and eruptive Adagio, then a quizzical intermezzo and tautly robust finale. Greater expressive freedom and rhythmic impetus, as compared to the recordings, was evident in most of these performances.

Thursday evening commenced with the Third Quartet (1944). Its uncompromising language is pursued across three movements (played without pause) that make inventive play with formal archetypes – whether the intensive sonata process in the initial Allegro, restive transformation of ideas over the slow movement’s ternary format or fugitive understatement of a final rondo which even the Danel could not prevent from feeling overly provisional. The Fourth Quartet (1945) is a more rounded achievement – its expansive trajectory leavening the tonal asperities of its predecessor with a long term tonal evolution that takes in the broadly paced momentum of the opening Allegro, through a motoric scherzo of irresistible rhythmic drive then a Largo whose funereal gait could hardly be taken out of context, to a finale whose blithe optimism is tempered by the pain of experience well before its stark closing gesture. Even more than on its recording, the Danel convincingly brought off this minor-key elision and did ample justice to a piece which ought to have communicated Weinberg’s name outside of the Soviet Union.

After the interval came the Fifth Quartet (1945). Appreciably different in its scale and scope, while continuing Weinberg’s intently evolving mastery of the medium, this proceeds from a wistfully ambivalent ‘Melodia’, via a drily amusing ‘Humoreska’ then a propulsive ‘Scherzo’ whose unbridled élan was unerringly conveyed here. The musing ‘Improvisation’ finds this work’s textural sparseness at its most tangible, before a ‘Serenata’ rounds off the whole with an equivocation which Shostakovich subsequently put to productive use in his own quartets.

Friday lunchtime began understatedly with the limpid Aria (1942) and laconically humorous Capriccio (1943), written in Tashkent on either side of the First Symphony, and which offer ready-made encores. Whether they were heard at this time is uncertain, but the Sixth Quartet (1946) went unheard for six decades until the present ensemble brought it to light and ranks among Weinberg’s salient masterpieces – one whose content is as distinctive as it is personal. Not the least its distinguishing factor is the way its six movements are dovetailed towards a satisfying yet by no means integrated whole – initiated by the quixotic opening Allegro, then intensified by a coursing Presto and explosive Allegro – these latter two ‘bleeding’ into each other – before a gaunt Adagio which seems in search of its underlying theme; then a troubled intermezzo then provides breathing space for the increasingly fractious course determined by the finale. A work that makes a virtue of its equivocation to an unnerving degree, the Danel responding with technical finesse and emotional insight that reinforced its intrinsic greatness.

Friday evening opened with the Seventh Quartet (1957). Coming after more than a decade, it might appear a pragmatic response to the post-Stalin era, yet there is nothing of compromise in this work (first of at least five Weinberg quartets to be premiered by the Borodin Quartet). Hardly its least achievement is the follow-through of its movements from a preludial Adagio of subdued eloquence, via an intermezzo with its structural (as opposed to anecdotal) use of klezmer inflections and which became an unexpected encore, to a finale whose implacable opening and close frame a theme and 23 variations of prodigious inventiveness and resource: qualities abundantly in evidence as the Danel rendered its quasi-palindromic design with a conviction and expressive breadth that ideally needed the interval to be placed afterwards.

Instead the ensemble continued directly with the Eighth Quartet (1959), first of Weinberg’s single-movement designs that artfully conceals a two-part format. Its initial unfolding from ruminative Adagio to wistful Andante and back is intensified through the intervention of a limpid Allegretto and a brusque Allegro, before the initial stasis is tentatively regained. The Danel conveyed this with an inevitability which could hardly be gainsaid. After the interval, the Ninth Quartet (1963) opens with an Allegro of a tensile velocity unequalled in his output – its energy spilling over into a sardonic intermezzo, while the ensuing Andante undercuts the poise of its would-be passacaglia with episodes of rhapsodic inertness, before a finale whose motivation seems destined to end in uncertainty. Again, an account of real insight, the Danel returning to give the first performance of Two Pieces from 1950 and only recently relocated – their respective charm and nonchalance indicative of Weinberg’s desire to write accessible music of integrity at a time when his concert output could hardly have gained much exposure.

Saturday lunchtime began with the Tenth Quartet (1964), its four movements complementing rather than conflicting with each other. Thus, the solemn opening movement finds its natural progression in a speculative scherzo; one to which a tersely declamatory Adagio itself makes possible the faux-repetition and ultimate equivocation of the finale. Mindful of the semantic connection with those comparable works in Shostakovich’s own cycle, the Danel duly opted for a flexible, nuanced approach both here and in the Eleventh Quartet (1966). In the latter, continuity is taken further across four movements which abound in motivic pre-echoes and allusions – the furtive scampering of the first movement followed by a teasingly refractory intermezzo, then a soloistic Adagio makes way for a finale whose waltz inflected progress cannot prevent the return of the opening from seeming fateful rather than inevitable. Never superficial, the Danel maintained coherence throughout while not overlooking the degree to which this piece holds the key to the elliptical inscrutability of those quartets that followed.

Any such ‘late’ style is amply confirmed by the Twelfth Quartet (1970), standing in solitary splendour within the context of Weinberg’s cycle. It effectively rewrites the rulebook as to how four movements are brought together in a diverse yet integrated whole. Serial elements extend the instrumental discourse, as does the incorporation of timbres and textures recalling those Weinberg surely encountered at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1966. Such are evident in the initial Largo, its impassive unfolding disrupted by flurries of activity towards its centre, while the Allegretto abounds in acerbic gestures that hasten a disconsolate end; from where the Presto surges to a climax of unremitting savagery. The final Moderato is left to negotiate motivic fragmentation and disjunctive exchanges prior to the most disconcerting conclusion in the quartet literature. The Danel conveyed the fullest extent of this wresting of continuity from change, then returned for another first – a combative scherzo intended for the Seventh Quartet that Weinberg (rightly) discarded as likely to detract from the majesty of its finale.

On to Saturday evening and the Thirteenth Quartet (1977) once again takes up the concept of a single movement. Here, though, the constituents of its sonata design are interspersed with episodes akin to scherzo and slow movement, the overall structure infused with a cumulative intensity that, allied to the increased usage of extended playing techniques, gives this music a rebarbative quality which is hardly sublimated by the anguished close. The Danel duly made the most of this discomforting piece, nor was there any lack of commitment in the Fourteenth Quartet (1978). Its five continuous movements do not so much progress as lurch forwards from the edgily austere first movement, by way of its sombrely impassive successor, then a scherzo and intermezzo which are not so much elusive as disembodied, to a finale in which any attempt at an overall synthesis gradually falls away to reveal a wanly resigned ending; one whose inherent fatalism is arguably more dismaying as it withdraws into virtual silence, as if to suggest that Weinberg’s self-communing is essentially a defence – even an escape.

The Fifteenth Quartet (1979) may be less stark in outcome but is the most radical of all these works in formal design. Its nine relatively brief movements are interpretable in various ways – but a highly oblique sonata design is implied by the aggressive ‘development’ of the central three movements, framed by respectively angular and thrusting ‘transitions’, then surrounded in turn by a two-part ‘exposition’ of almost secretive inwardness; itself balanced by a ‘reprise’ whose incrementally wider expression facilitates an eventual, albeit tenuous, sense of closure.

Sunday afternoon brought the cycle to its close. The Sixteenth Quartet (1981) is inscribed to the memory of Weinberg’s sister in what would have been her sixtieth year; this, along with the outwardly conventional four movements, affords a sense of rapprochement – though the initial Allegro feels anything but predictable in its discursive sonata design, while the gritty scherzo enfolds a trio of ethereal remoteness. A highly austere slow movement (a passacaglia in intention if not in execution) hints at more lyrical expression given fuller rein as the finale builds on its waltz-inflected main theme to a short-lived climax which, in turn, makes way for a becalmed postlude. This recalls earlier ideas before reaching a close whose gentle radiance transcends the age-old distinction between depth and profundity with the deftest of touches.

The Danel realized this to perfection, as it did the very different Seventeenth Quartet (1986) with its affirmation rare in Weinberg’s later music. This also marks a final engagement with one-movement form; its energetic Allegros serving as exposition and development, then as development and reprise, between which are a recitative-like Andantino and aria-like Lento. Transitions are provided by vibrant solos and the whole capped by a coda of real optimism – tangibly conveyed in this effervescent account which also made a fitting close to the cycle.

Following the interval, David Fanning (above) joined the Danel for a ‘40-minute encore’ in the Piano Quintet (1944) that is Weinberg’s earliest masterpiece and was to remain one of his defining works. Securing momentum over the whole is never easy, but Fanning’s deft understatement ensured a steady build-up from the speculative opening Moderato, via an agitated Allegretto, to the sardonic Presto; after which, the expansive Largo exuded real eloquence without undue rhetoric before the combative final Allegro that culminated in a coda of furtive anticipation.

Interspersed within this cycle were two other recitals. Friday afternoon saw Rosalind Dobson (above) and Michelle Assay (above with David Fanning) repeat their account (after its world premiere in November) of Old Letters (1962), eight romances after Julian Tuwim. The length and only incremental expressive range meant this sequence felt too long for a collection while too unvaried for a cycle; its highlight being a setting of ‘Lorelei’ the more affecting for its brevity. Not that this performance lacked anything in characterization, Dobson and Assay returning for two settings of an untitled poem by Alexander Blok: as ‘Dedication’ this forms the wistful opening of Weinberg’s Beyond the Threshold of Past Days (1951), and, as ‘Music’ the eloquent finale of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances (1967) – for which latter they were joined by Marc Danel and Yovan Markovitch.

Saturday afternoon brought two of the solo sonatas from Weinberg’s later years. Whether or not publicly performed in the composer’s lifetime, the Double Bass Sonata (1971) has since established itself in an admittedly select repertoire for the instrument. Certainly, it could have no more committed an advocate than Roberto Carrillo-Garcia (above), who rendered the six-movement amalgam of elements derived from suite and sonata with consummate insight and panache – repeating its propulsive finale to considerable acclaim. The Sixth Piano Sonata (1960) avoids overt display, but this equivocal take on the ‘prelude and fugue’ archetype makes absorbing listening, not least when Michelle Assay brought out the sombre poise of its Adagio then the contrapuntal intricacy and cumulative energy of its final Allegro to such an engaging degree.

Thursday afternoon also brought a fascinating presentation by Dr Daniel Elphick, who has reconstructed the original versions of the First and Second Quartets – the former being the subject of his lecture-recital which revealed the teenage Weinberg as fully aware of current developments; not least the climax of its slow movement, when that of the ‘Largo desolato’ from Berg’s Lyric Suite loomed startlingly into focus. Hopefully it will be possible to hear these original versions before too long – maybe as a recorded appendix to the Danel’s cycle.

The conference itself featured a dozen papers by scholars drawn from across Europe, as well as Australia, Russia, the UK and the US. Most of these should become available online in due course, and it is to be hoped publication will ensue. Mention should also be made of a Skype interview with Weinberg’s elder daughter Victoria Bishops that shed light on the composer’s middle decades, and a flying visit from Gidon Kremer (whose Kremerata Baltica focusses on Weinberg in his centenary year) for a brief recital and speech on the importance of this music.

Overall, this conference offered valuable context for appreciating the quartet cycle. Assessing Weinberg’s quartets surely centres on the underlying premise of a composer concerned with building on the achievements of the past rather than with breaking new ground – from which perspective, his finest quartets are defining examples of what the genre is capable of yielding, and in an age that most often seems unfavourable to abstract musical thought. Clearly this is a cycle which is relevant to present-day composers and listeners alike: as and when it makes its way into wider public consciousness, this will have been made possible by the Quatuor Danel.

Further information about Quatuor Danel can be found at their website. Meanwhile Daniel Elphick’s Weinberg blog can be found here

You can listen to the Quatuor Danel’s Weinberg cycle below:

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