WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3. Flute Concerto* / Łukasz Dlugosz, fl; Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio; Anna Duczmal-Mróz, cond / Dux 1525
In this, the 100th anniversary year of Mieczysław Weinberg’s birth (spelled on this release as Wajnberg, and sometimes even spelled Vainberg), neither his home country of Poland nor his adopted country of Russian (formerly the USSR) are planning a single memorial concert, which is tragic, but here the Polish CD label Dux has done us a great favor by issuing his two rarely-heard Chamber Symphonies and his Flute Concerto.
One reason why Weinberg is being ignored is that much of his music is unusual in form and structure. He used modern harmonies but seldom if ever wrote in a harsh, abrasive style, but neither did he normally write in an accessible one. Most of his symphonies lack the kind of form that audiences expect from such pieces; they are moody, occasionally joyful but often despairing, mirroring his own personal experience fleeing Poland after the Nazi invasion and then hearing, from a distance, of the decimation of his family and friends. Even in the liner notes of this release, it is noted that “his music in our country is well known only to a narrow group of recipients.”
Surprisingly, these chamber symphonies, though moving (after the initial themes) into unusual development sections, are not only more cheerful but also more accessible. They sound just as one would expect from works with such a title, and if they are closer in style to mid-20th century composers rather than those of the late 19th they also have a surprising number of formed melodies which he worked into interesting figures. Happily, the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio and its conductor, Anna Duczmal-Mróz, attack these scores with wonderful feeling in addition to crisp attacks and a perfect ensemble blend.
Although these are chamber symphonies in the sense that a small orchestra is used, they are not “small” symphonies. The first runs over 31 minutes, with a first movement of 10:25 and a second movement of 11:03, and the second runs nearly 32 minutes. In form, then, they are fully fleshed-out works. This is particularly evident in the first symphony’s second movement, marked “Andante-Allegro.” The contrast between the slow first half and the faster, more cheerful second half is striking, yet thematically Weinberg managed to tie both parts together in his typical fashion. The real surprise comes in the third-movement “Allegretto,” which is paced at the slow end of that tempo designation and has a sort of bittersweet quality about it, with several short pauses between its “falling” figures. The last movement begins with biting figures played by the celli and basses, followed by scurrying violin figures to which Weinberg wrote a lively if somewhat galumphing counterpoint. To a certain extent, this work put me in mind of Shostakovich’s piano concerti, which also use accessible themes within a tolerably modern harmonic environment.
The flute concerto also has a Shostakovich-like sound; perhaps due to the nature of the solo instrument, it is even happier-sounding music than the first chamber symphony, with flitting figures played by both the soloists and the high strings while the celli play bouncing counterpoint underneath. Another surprise is the depth of feeling Weinberg put into the second movement, which almost sounds like a completely separate work in its mood, while the third walks a tightrope between good humor and a sort of wry cynicism.
The third chamber symphony opens with a pleasant but quite serious theme played by the violas, followed later with a different theme played high in the violins. This is closer in both mood and structure to his symphonies for full orchestra, only in microcosm, or perhaps (for me, anyway) a far superior version of Strauss’ dreary Metamorphosen for 23 strings. (I’ll never forget being assigned to listen to that piece of dreck and then write an essay on its form and meaning. I described its form as “continually sad music in canon that scarcely develops, but stays in one place for a half-hour and makes you want to slit your wrists.” They were not amused, but I still maintain that I was right.) By contrast, the second movement jumps into a happy space via detached viola figures, with the celli playing a smoothly gliding commentary beneath and the violins whole notes above. This gets developed in a brilliant fashion, with the three string sections interacting and contributing to the scurrying, joyous whole. It’s a rare movement of unabashed happiness from a composer whose life and psyche were so scarred by tragedy and failure.
The third-movement “Adagio” has more forward momentum than the opening “Lento,” but also less of a dolorous feel to it. There’s a very moving cello solo towards the end that I could easily hear being played by a great cellist such as Steven Isserlis or Zuill Bailey. This moves, after the shortest of pauses, into the whimsical, happy-but-bittersweet final “Andantino,” again with the violas leading the way in the opening theme. Just before the seven-minute mark, the orchestra falls away and we hear a plaintive violin solo which leads into the slow closing section. Here we have the more typical Weinberg, writing music that moves the listener away from his or her expectations.
This is a splendid album, beautifully played and also beautifully recorded. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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