Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Symphony no.21 & Shostakovich: Symphony no.15

Freddie Jemison (treble), Maria Makeeva (soprano), Gidon Kremer (violin, above), Kremerata BalticaCity of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Grazinyte-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Weinberg Symphony no.21 op.152
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major op.141

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Weinberg Weekend being held in Birmingham reached its culmination tonight with this uncompromising yet rewarding symphonic double-bill. Those unfamiliar with the composer’s music may have been disconcerted by what they heard. Whereas the early Violin Concertino (heard at the previous concert) feels not so far removed from comparable works by Malcolm Arnold, the Symphony no.21 breathes an air of stark fatalism. Written at a time which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto (the ‘Kaddish’ subtitle is found in his catalogue but not the actual score), it ranks among Weinberg’s deepest statements. At almost an hour it is also among his longest symphonies, so making its predominant sparseness and concentration the more remarkable.

The single movement falls into several continuous sections – an initial Largo’ introducing the plangent hymn that pervades the work then the chorale whose presence Weinberg traced back to his First Symphony, their alternation making way for the opening theme of Chopin’s First Ballade intoned somnolently on piano. An Allegro draws a theme from Weinberg’s Fourth Quartet into its reckless orbit, while a further Largo similarly utilizes one from his Double-Bass Sonata – the latter’s sepulchral tones sounding more bizarre given the ensuing klezmer-like passage with clarinet, which persists through a tensile Presto then plaintive Andantino that brings the principal climax. A final Lento unfolds with increasing introspection – violin, piano and harmonium adding their spectral sonorities until the music fades out of earshot.

The work went unheard in Weinberg’s lifetime, with its undoubted technical and emotional challenges having made revivals rare. Yet its formal cohesion and expressive consistency are undoubted – in the conveying of which, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla took especial credit for rendering the epic structure as an inevitable yet cumulative entity whose febrile outbursts were held in check by that encroaching vastness which extends right across the whole. She was abetted by an assured response from the City of Birmingham Symphony, bolstered by members of Kremerata Baltica (Gidon Kremer taking the violin solos), and if dividing the vocalise between eloquent Maria Makeeva and plaintive Freddie Jemison slightly disrupted continuity in the closing stages, it hardly distracted from the stature of this reading overall.

Shostakovich‘s Symphony no.15 made a pertinent coupling, with Grazinyte-Tyla having its measure right from her purposeful take on the opening Allegretto. The Adagio’s ominous tread was finely sustained, its numerous solo passages having ample room to unfold prior to an anguished climax then desolate coda, while the brief scherzo fairly crackled with barbed irony. Nor was there any lack of focus in the finale, emerging from its miasma of allusions through to a spectral passacaglia whose seismic culmination never pre-empted the subdued recollection of earlier ideas or, above all, the transfigured conclusion with its evocation of ‘voices overheard’ over simmering percussion. It set the seal on an impressive performance and a memorable concert: one which certainly warrants the proposed commercial release.

Sunday morning saw a lecture in the Recital Hall at the recently-opened Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. As presented by Prof David Fanning (Manchester University) and Dr Michelle Assay (Huddersfield University), Exploring Weinberg offered a selective though consistently informative overview of the composer’s life and career: from his formative years in Warsaw, via his arrival in Moscow following periods in Minsk then Tashkent against the background of war; the dark years of the anti-formalism campaign then his incarceration during the final months of Stalin’s increasingly paranoid rule, then to the decades of growing acclaim from colleagues and public alike during the 1960s and ’70s, before a period of increasing neglect as a new generation of Soviet composers came to the fore and the Soviet Union neared its end.

The lecture was illustrated with numerous visual and musical examples, but it was archival recording of Weinberg playing and singing extracts from his opera The Passenger to the Moscow Union of Composers – in a futile attempt to secure its performance – that riveted attention. Hearing a composer’s actual voice is seldom less than revealing and so it proved here, setting the seal on an event which was certainly worth attending despite the absence of a selection of chamber works from Conservatoire students that was to have followed.

Summing up, the Weinberg Weekend fairly succeeded in terms of introducing Birmingham audiences to music by a composer whose importance continues to increase and as a prelude to what looks set to be a deluge of UK performances over the course of his centenary year.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica

Gidon Kremer (violin), Georgijs Osokina (piano), Kremerata Baltica (above)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Bach-Busoni (arr. Kremer) Chaconne in D minor BWV1004/5 (c1720)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings in A minor op.42 (1948)
‘Schubert meets Silvestrov’:
Schubert Five Minuets and Six Trios D89 (1813) and Der Musensohn D764 (1822) interspersed with
Silvestrov Five Pieces for violin and piano (2004)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having launched the Weinberg Weekend with his impressive transcription of the 24 Preludes for cello, Gidon Kremer this morning bought Kremerata Baltica to Birmingham’s Town Hall for a programme that placed Weinberg within a typically stimulating and unexpected context.

Few who have heard Weinberg’s opera The Passenger could have been left unmoved by that climactic moment when the opening of Bach‘s Chaconne is intoned by unison violins as the symbol of an enduring German culture. Disappointing, then, that Kremer’s own arrangement of Busoni’s mighty piano transcription (as referenced at the opening) should have proved so underwhelming; or was it more the demands of synchronization when not conducted that led Kremerata Baltica to neuter textural and emotional contrasts in this immaculate yet unresponsive rendering.

Kremer then joined his ensemble for Weinberg’s Violin Concertino, a product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but proscribed. While there is little in its melodic content of real memorability, the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music) then an incisive final Allegro is nothing if not resourceful. Even then, this attractive piece waited almost half a century for its first hearing.

Kremer and his ensemble made the most of these attractions, as they did in the final piece – a curious though effective dovetailing of miniatures from Schubert and Silvestrov. The former was heard in transcriptions (by Kremer?) of an early sequence of minuets and trios for string quartet, his teenage gaucheness outweighed by melodic poise and rhythmic brio. In between these, Valentin Silvestrov’s Five Pieces proved suitably elusive – Kremer and pianist Georgijs Osokina teasing myriad subtleties from a subdued elegy, wistful serenade, poetic intermezzo, limpid barcarolle and haunting nocturne. The sequence was rounded off with an arrangement (by Christoph Ehrenfellner) of Schubert’s song Der Musensohn, one of a handful of Goethe settings that mark the onset of his full maturity; here working its bewitching charms in full.

A bewitching way, indeed, to conclude a typically provocative programme by this always enterprising ensemble. Kremer’s and Kremerata Baltica will also be taking part in tonight’s concert which features a very different piece by Weinberg, his valedictory 21st Symphony.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Gidon Kremer – Preludes to a Lost Time (Imaginary Dialogues)

Gidon Kremer (above, violin), Antanas Sutkus (photographs)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 23 November 2018

Weinberg (arr. Kremer) 24 Preludes op.100 (1968)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

His centenary may be over a year away, but the City of Birmingham Symphony has set the ball rolling with a weekend centred upon the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), the Polish-born Soviet composer who has latterly (in terms of recording) come in from the cold.

The weekend opened with a performance of the 24 Preludes written for, but never played by, Mstislav Rostropovich and unheard publicly until 1995. These have now been transcribed for violin by Gidon Kremer, whose recent commitment to Weinberg’s cause has been typically unstinting, and it was he – in his capacity as the orchestra’s artist-in-residence for this season – who gave this evening’s performance in the clear though never clinical acoustic of CBSO Centre. His playing was accompanied throughout with overhead projections from Antanas Sutkus, the Lithuanian photographer whose images afford an overview of life in the latter decades of the Soviet bloc such as seems the more affecting for its starkness and restraint.

Just like Weinberg’s music, in fact – the Preludes finding their composer in combative mood as he neared his fiftieth year. Unlike Chopin and Shostakovich, he tackled the sequence not as a circle of fifths but as an arc of 12 ascending then 12 descending semitones – implying a two-part structure complemented by the three ‘waves’ as discerned by Yosif Feigelson (who gave the premiere). Equally plausible is a four-movement format with pivotal roles assumed by the stealthy sixth, confiding 12th, stately 18th then wistful 24th preludes. Throughout the sequence, pieces rich in allusion offset others which focus upon primary musical essentials.

A fascinating and expressively wide-ranging opus, then, to which Kremer did full justice in his skilful and idiomatic transcription; his taut and incisive tone only adding to the plangency of this music. A pity, perhaps, that Sutkus’s photographs could not have ‘bled’ from one to the other in a visual continuity rather then changing (as was often the case) mid-prelude, but this hardly hindered appreciation of the music overall. Kremer received an enthusiastic response from a near-capacity audience, so launching this Weinberg Weekend in impressive fashion.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Distance – Mario Brunello plays Bach, Cage & Weinberg at the National Gallery in London

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1502-4), by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano

Mario Brunello (cello, below)

J.S. Bach Solo Cello Suite no.5, BWV1011 (c1720s)
Cage 4’33” (1952)
Weinberg Sonata for Solo Cello no.1, Op.72 (1960)

Room 61, The National Gallery, London; Thursday 7 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A rare treat indeed – the chance to witness a concert in the very heart of the National Gallery. Given by cellist Mario Brunello, the hour of music was entirely inspired by the Cima work The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, a powerful and colourful depiction of the apostle’s doubting of Christ’s resurrection.

Brunello chose three pieces to bring the work to musical life, the first of which was entirely appropriate. Cellists such as Steven Isserlis have long held a belief that the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach carry a parallel with the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, and in choosing the Fifth Suite Brunello picked the one most closely associated with Christ’s death. The Sarabande in particular is some of Bach’s most extraordinary music, a single line portraying in vivid detail the darkest of moments, dispensing almost entirely with obvious rhythms or harmonic movement. The solemn prelude and faster dance music tends to occupy the lower registers of the instrument, and here it found a perfect match in the rich baritone of Brunello’s 1600 Maggini cello. Meanwhile the wispy lines of the second Gavotte were especially effective, tracing invisible lines around the performing space.

The second piece was a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, a work that will divide opinions for eternity it seems. Never failing to raise a smile or a more extreme reaction, the three movements of silence – each conducted in by Brunello, as the composer instructs – were here an effective postscript to the Bach. While inevitably there was some extraneous noise from people walking around in the gallery, and a brief solo from a vibrating phone in the middle distance, the period of reflection if anything enhanced the impact of the Bach that had gone before, whilst enabling us to focus afresh on the painting behind Brunello’s left shoulder. I did not time the ‘performance’, though it felt a lot longer than the specified duration – perhaps an indication that, in a busy city, 4’33” can be a surprising length of time.

Coming out of the silence with the Suite no.1 for solo cello by Mieczysław Weinberg was a fascinating move. Only in the last five or so years has the music of this Soviet / Polish composer gained recognition, thanks in part to Brunello’s close associate Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Brunello grew the first movement out of nothing to a powerful apex before dropping back to the low note where it started, while the second movement was a charming yet muted dance, played as though the real drama was being held back. And so it proved, for the final movement started with such ferocity as to knock the listener back in their seat. Three powerful bow strokes of unison ‘C’s – the same tonal centre of the Bach – brought all manner of parallels with the three hours between crucifixion and death, though the violence was also portraying Thomas’s disbelieving prods at Christ’s side.

Either way this was incredibly powerful in its realisation, Brunello making up for the occasional tuning idiosyncrasy with a forceful tone which seemed to grow ever more powerful as the range went higher. Weinberg’s music carries great meaning, given the composer’s responses to the tragedies of his personal life, and its use here with Bach and Cage put it in the best possible context. Even the weather responded in kind – when we entered the gallery it was raining, but we emerged blinking into powerful sunshine. A true darkness to light experience.

Further listening and reading

You can experience the same program from the National Gallery on this Spotify playlist, including Mario Brunello’s recording of the Bach:

Meanwhile if you are interested in more Weinberg, the release below, of chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet, is a substantial document completed by Gidon Kremer with the ECM label:

Under the Surface: Antonina Styczeń – Weinberg: Works for flute (Tacet)

Weinberg Flute Concertos: No.1 Op.75 (1961); No.2 Op.148 (1987); 12 Miniatures Op.29bis (1945/83); Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp Op.127 (1979)

Antonina Styczeń (flute), Paweł Czarny (viola), Zuzanna Fedorowicz, Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra / Wojciech Rajski

What’s it all about?

The complete output for flute and orchestra of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), played by an artist of high calibre (and not merely as a flautist!), with the first recording of an arrangement by a composer whose stranding has risen immeasurably over the two decades since his death.

What’s the music like?

Weinberg’s flute concertos provide a revealing insight into his music at key junctures of his career. The First Concerto is one of a group of pieces, including the Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto, that finds Weinberg refocussing his approach to abstract composition in the wake of Stalin’s death; culminating in the formidable cohesion of the Fifth Symphony a year later. Modest in scope, it unfolds from a lively initial Allegro, via a Largo of exquisite poise to a final Allegro whose teasing understatement is brusquely curtailed only at the very last.

By the time of his Second Flute Concerto, Weinberg was struggling with failing health and his eclipse by a younger and ostensibly more provocative generation of composers. Not that this piece evinces defeatism or self-pity; instead refining the conception of its predecessor so that the angular opening Allegro affords potent contrast with a Largo of affecting poignancy, then with a fugitive Allegretto. Allusions to Bach, Gluck et al flit by in the latter as Weinberg reflects on this instrument as also his evolution as a composer across more than five decades.

What makes this disc mandatory for all admirers of Weinberg is its first recording of the 12 Miniatures, initially conceived with piano accompaniment then arranged for string orchestra some 38 years later. On one level a sequence of improvisatory gestures, discreetly contrasted as to texture and expression, they yet emerge as an engaging unity almost despite themselves. Nor is it surprising that, heard in this way, these pieces seem more a product of Weinberg’s last years – during which time his musical idiom became ever more distilled and refractory.

Although never envisaged as other than a chamber work, the Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp might itself be thought a concerto manqué; sharing as it does the concertos’ three-movement form, alongside their undemonstrative juxtaposing of animated and introspective. Debussy’s totemic sonata for these instruments could hardly not be referred to during its course, yet the means-by which they combine, thereby resulting in music of far from untroubled serenity, is Weinberg’s alone. A ‘one-off’ in his output, it could not be mistaken for any other composer.

Do the performances do it justice?

Yes. Antonina Styczeń is a flautist as adept technically as she is insightful interpretively. She enjoys evident rapport with the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra of Sopot, as also her fellow players in the trio. Accounts of the concertos from Anders Jonhäll (Chandos, coupled with the Cello Fantasia and Clarinet Concerto), are more atmospheric while less characterful; among three other recordings of the trio, avoid that on BIS as this substitutes piano for harp – with unfortunate results. The present disc is admirably recorded and informatively annotated.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Styczeń is clearly a musician to watch. In addition to her flute playing, she is also a skilled horse-rider (as is made plain by the booklet photos) and intends to combine these two media in future. Happily, she falls at none of the fences encountered in Weinberg’s music!

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify: