Weinberg’s 17th Symphony in a Great New Recording

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WEINBERG: Suite for Orchestra; Symphony No. 17, “Memory” / Siberian State Symphony Orch.; Vladimir Lande, conductor / Naxos 8.573565

For those who have already discovered Mieczysław Weinberg (pronounced “Vainberg”), this is an important release; for those who haven’t, I would say that it’s a good introduction to one of the most consistently excellent and intriguing Polish-Soviet composers of the Communist Era.

A brief background: Weinbereg was discovered to be immensely talented in music even as a child, received a good education, but fled to the Soviet Union at age 20 (1939) when the Nazis overran Poland. For whatever reason, he chose not to return there after the war but stayed on until his death in 1996, by which time, of course, Putin was in power and the old Soviet system was gone. He was friendly with Shostakovich, who always encouraged him, but Weinberg had a curiously retiring nature and lacked any sense of self-promotion. His music was played only sporadically during his lifetime—the Suite that opens this disc, written in 1950 and designed to please Stalin and the Politbureau was never performed—and received only a few bones in the way of commissions. He is probably best known to children who grew up in the early 1970s as the composer of the background music for a series of very cute Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons shows on Soviet television.

Tonal and relatively simple though the Suite is, it exemplifies the tremendous skill Weinberg possessed. There is scarcely an uninteresting page in this work, light though the score is, and one often hears the influence of Klezmer music (in both compositional style and orchestration) coloring what he wrote. And even in this deliciously buoyant performance by Lande, you can hear the undercurrent of “I’m trying to keep this interesting but, you know, I’ve got to make it happy and peppy because otherwise Iron Joe will send me to Siberia.” And oddly, it is this undercurrent of desperation that makes the music interesting. In the “Galop” that closes the suite out, Weinberg switches from Yiddish Klezmer to Russian circus music.

The Seventeenth Symphony, composed in the 1980s, Weinberg switches gears from good spirits to tragedy. This was written to commemorate all his friends, and untold millions unknown to him who died in World War II. It was premiered in 1984 at the Moscow Autumn Festival in a performance conducted by the fine Russian conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev; his recording on the Neos label is the one I was familiar with. Lande’s performance is a shade faster but also more intense; even in the soft passages, the strings almost cry with pain and suffering, but not—as was so often the case with Shostakovich—with heart-on-the-sleeve bathos. And this is what distinguishes Weinberg’s work and makes it emotionally affecting as well as tragic, not just heart-on-the-sleeve sobbing. Note in the first movement, however, how the emotion-laden strings suddenly break off, followed by a forlorn solo clarinet, under which cellos play, followed in turn by the upper strings while the clarinet continues its sad, meandering tune. Weinberg always had a long view of his music: he saw where he was going and thus wrote interesting and moving bridge passages to get it from point A to B to C, whereas I always felt with Shostakovich that he was more interested in composing juxtaposed themes and then later somehow tying them together. Which isn’t to say that I dislike all Shostakovich; I don’t; but I love Weinberg much, much more.

Lande’s performance of this symphony is so affecting that even as I listened, already knowing the Fedoseyev performance, I felt I was hearing it for the first time. This is really great art, the kind of music that summarizes tragedy and evokes these kind of feelings in the listener without shaming him or her into feeling that they are culpable for what happened. Remember that Weinberg was already a resident of the Soviet Union by the time Nazi forces, headquartered in his home country, invaded his adopted one in the Battle of Leningrad. Thus in a sense one can compare this symphony to Shostakovich’s Seventh and hear the difference in approach. Weinberg is concerned with the internal, the feelings of tragedy that an individual feels, where Shostakovich is concerned with big, outward clashes, symbolizing the physical struggle rather than the spiritual. It’s an entirely different “take” on the same basic feelings.

Which isn’t to say that Weinberg’s symphony remains quiet throughout. On the contrary, most of the second movement (“Allegro molto,” which runs 15 minutes) is basically very loud and in its own way summarize the clashes of war. But listen to the careful, meticulous way Weinberg uses his musical materials. Despite his emotional catharsis, he is first and foremost a composer, building the movement structurally in a way that makes sense and is inherently logical, whereas Shostakovich was first and foremost an emotionalist, pushing his feelings to the breaking point, considering structure to be secondary. Again, this is not altogether a criticism of the latter, but it illustrates the difference in their approaches. An objective performance of Weinberg’s 17th Symphony can still be effective, as Fedoseyev proved, whereas an objective one of Shostakovich’s 7th can feel as if it misses the mark, as Toscanini proved.

All in all, then, this is an indispensable recording for any Weinberg collector. You can safely dispense with the Fedoseyev version if you need to make room on your shelf, as it contains no other work on the disc, while this one has the interesting Suite as a filler. The Siberian State orchestra plays with vigor, precision and a beautiful tone, and Lande brings out the full measure of this score with tremendous passion. A splendid release.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Weinberg’s 17th Symphony in a Great New Recording

  1. David Owen says:

    thanks you for a very interesting analysis –although there is a error in the background. Yeltsin was still in power in 1996 and Putin only took over in 1999 after Yeltsin was forced to step down in disgrace after ruining the country in the view of most Russians– never mind that.

    I’ve just listened to the Lande for the first time today and find many of your comments on the interpretation to be spot on and the comparisons with Shostakovich also rings a few bells for me as regards an “objective” interpretation not working with him though it can, at least sometimes, do so for Weinberg. As a symphonist, I regard Weinberg as clearly superior but in the quartets, I dither. The heart on sleeve emotionalism of Shostakovich’s late works, which are most reminiscent in fact of Beethoven, do work and Weinberg’s slightly more obscure approach of his 13-17 may find it harder to win friends, though in the “mid-period”,say nos 5-9, then I find Weinberg’s superior technique and greater inventiveness win the day.

    Anyway, 17 and Lande. The icicles really crack here — it’s a distinctively chilly and chilling performance with the middle movements taken at a cracking pace which brings out all the drama as well as the terror. Quite a surprise after Lande’s mostly sympathetic but generally moderately paced and slightly understated readings compared especially to the Soviet era predecessors. With Fedoseyev’s original recording hard to obtain and I’m not sure about the sound even if it was, the choice is a simple one between Fedoseyev Bregenz and Lande. The answer, I would suggest, is not to throw away the NEOS recording though, but to have both if you’re at all seriously in love this composer which we clearly both are. Fedoseyev’s more measured approach does pay dividends in bringing out some of the more mystical and wistful details which at times Lande can miss though he certainly has insights of his own.

    However, if I had to suggest only one of the two to a newcomer regarding this composer, I probably would also go for Lande. The symphony is stunning, possibly his greatest (though I have a very soft spot for the very different 19 and two friends particularly like 21), and can hardly fail to impress lovers of Shostakovitch 10 for instance.

    David

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