Weinberg’s Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 7 in New Recordings

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WEINBERG (WAJNBERG): String Quartet No. 7 in C. Piano Quintet in F minor / Silesian Quartet; Piotr Sałajczyk, pianist / Accord ACD239-2

Over the last decade, the music of Miecyszław Weinberg—pronounced, and sometimes spelled, as “VAIN-berg,” or in this case spelled “Wajnberg”—has emerged from nowhere to become established as some of the greatest of the 20th century. It’s not just that his harmonic language was very close to that of his friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, but rather that his way of expressing himself had so much individuality and personality in it. Weinberg’s music touches the heart and moves the emotions as much as it stimulates the mind.

That being said, a release like this strikes me as a bit odd, pairing but one of his 17 String Quartets with the little-recorded Piano Quintet (only six other versions available), although the sales sheet accompanying this release informs us that this is to be the first of a seven-disc series of Weinberg’s music played by this quartet.

The performances are certainly quite fine. Their version of the Quartet No. 7 is certainly on as high a level as that of the Quatuor Danel, in their complete set of the quartets on CPO. In the very opening of the performance, it almost sounded as if the Silesian Quartet were using straight tone, except that I know from past listening that the high, quiet opening of this piece is to be played so lightly that vibrato would be intrusive. As the performance continues, we come to realize that the Silesian players are indeed using a quick, light vibrato, which is fine. Generally speaking, as a group they have a lean sound profile, which aids the listener in hearing the different lines of the music clearly while still maintaining a good ensemble sound in those passages where it is called for, but by and large Weinberg carried on a conversation between his instruments.

When the series is completed, I assure the listener that Silesian’s traversal of the string quartets will rival and possibly even surpass that of Quatour Danel. Just listen to the emotional angst they are able to bring our of the third and last movement of this quartet; it is almost nerve-wracking in its intensity! I’m also very fond of the sound quality, which is crisp and clear, almost in-your-face. I’m so tired of hearing string quartets recorded with too much space or reverb around the instruments.

As for the Piano Quintet, although an early work by Weinberg (Op. 18), it is not lacking in feeling or communication, but it is more of a melancholy piece than a dramatic one. Weinberg cleverly uses the piano in the opening movement as a “commentator” on what the string quartet is playing, rather than a consistently active partner. I found this very interesting; there are long sections in which only the quartet plays, and brief solos for the pianist without the strings. In those few passages where they are all together, the piano part is completely different from what the strings are playing. Occasionally, you hear the piano left hand more strongly, as a sort of basso continuo. It’s absolutely fascinating!

The second movement is even more interesting. Here, Weinberg seems to use all of the instruments in discrete sections, all playing music somewhat different from everyone else’s. Occasionally, the strings come together, but seldom in a harmonious manner; generally, they are fighting one another over who-knows-what. Having never heard this piece before, I can’t really say whether or not the lightweight, almost dispassionate playing of pianist Piotr Sałajczyk is exactly what Weinberg wanted, but it seems to fit into the context of the piece. Once in a while Sałajczyk attacks the keys with a bit more force, but never with much emotion. He is the outside commentator on the strings’ dialogue and/or argument.

The third movement is even odder, a slithering sort of melody in buoyant eighth notes, and here the piano part sparkles and, at times, dominates the scene, but again often divorced from what the strings are playing. Eventually we reach a mad sort of waltz, like a drunken merry-go-round, with the string quartet pushing the piano around like a beach ball on the crest of breaking waves. What a bizarre piece! By contrast the fourth movement, though marked “Largo,” has absolutely no repose about it; rather, it begins loudly, in a stentorian, stomping mood, laying heavily into half notes and eventually becoming a funeral march in E-flat minor before clearing the strings away entirely and allowing the pianist to play a long, meditative solo. For several minutes, we almost forget that this is supposed to be a piano quintet, until such time as the pianist is asked to play repetitive chime chords in E-flat major and the cello comes in for an achingly sad yet beautiful solo melody. When the upper string return, it is to intensify the mood and double the tempo, finally creating typical Weinbergian angst. Almost aggressive pizzicatos emerge as the piano tosses in a few licks that sound almost random in their placement, yet which add to the ongoing sequence. The movement ends quietly, as if in sad desperation.

The fifth and final movement starts as angst-ridden argument, but quickly and unexpectedly evolves into an Irish Jig! I kid you not! Only a composer with the vivif imagination of a Weinberg could have thought of such a thing, let alone executed it with such aplomb. Then, just as suddenly, the music moves into an aggressive 3/4 with the strings playing repetitive notes with aggressive bowing and the piano weaving in and out of their way. It almost sounds like a march to hell…except that, suddenly and unexpectedly, the tempo comes way down, everything turns quiet, and it seems the piece will end that way, except that the repeated bowed chords return (not quite as loudly and aggressively) as the quintet rides off into the sunset.

Put simply, this is a terrific disc. The Quartet No. 7 is fine, but the Piano Quintet is a stunner. You need to hear this album, particularly if you (like me) don’t have the latter piece in your collection.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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