Gražinyté-Tyla’s Powerful Weinberg

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WEINBERG: Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra.* Symphony No. 21(“Kaddish”), Op. 152+ / *Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, vln; +City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Georgijs Osokins, pno; Kremer, vln; Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla, cond/voc / Deutsche Grammophon 483 6566

As far as women conductors go, Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla is the hot ticket, particularly in England (which, as we all know, is the global hub of all classical music activity; just ask the Brits). My first exposure to her, conducting a blistering-fast, white-hot Beethoven Fifth Symphony, was positive because she took the music at the exact written tempo and tore its very Romantic guts wide open. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Yet, as Gražinyté-Tyla put it in an interview in Gramophone (which, as we all know, is the only classical music magazine worth reading; just ask the Brits), she is far less interested in adding to the Beethoven, or Mozart, or even Mahler catalogs so much as she’s interested in being “able to record some very special – maybe unknown – things. When I think about recording, I feel a sense of responsibility about the fact that what we do stays here forever. There’s much less…let’s call it ‘need’ for another Beethoven cycle, than there is for the discovery of Weinberg’s music.”

Putting her talent where her heart is, we have this new release, the first-ever commercial recordings of Weinberg’s Second and 21st Symphonies. She uses Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica for the early (1946) work, the City of Birmingham Symphony for the later.

I admit that, when the first movement of the second symphony started, I felt a bit disappointed. It wasn’t so much in the tempi, which were good, but the phrasing, seemed a bit too taut for Weinberg. In addition, it sounded as if Kremerata Baltica were using straight tone, and although I know I can’t win my battle against those who daily desecrate Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz and eveb Brahms with this apparently communicable disease, this is clearly dead-wrong for Weinberg. He wrote for modern strings sections to play with vibrato, and did so in part because he wanted his music to be emotionally strong and impactful, not cold and clinical.

Yet, as the movement continued, I realized that it was mostly the cold sound of the strings and not Gražinyté-Tyla’s coldness. She caresses the phrases with care and sensitivity, so that by the movement’s end you almost (but not quite) forget the negative effect of the opening. The slow second movement goes along in much the same way, the earlier part of it tending towards not coldness in the sense of no feeling at all but a lack of interior drama, but ending up quite deeply felt as Weinberg’s music should be. Violinist-conductor Gidon Kremer, the orchestra’s founder and also a big fan of Weinberg’s music, plays the solo violin parts with aplomb.

Indeed, even in this early symphony, we hear how radically different Weinberg’s music was from everyone else’s, even that of his friend Shostakovich. Where the modern Russian composer went for strong, powerful emotions, sometimes quite violent-sounding and over-the-top, Weinberg keeps withdrawing from the sound barrier. He gives the listener a small taste of drama in short phrases, some of which break off before they have completed their statement, then retreats from the sound barrier with achingly sad themes that somehow, miraculously, lack bombast or bathos. Shostakovich was the Angry Young Man who beat his chest and railed to the heavens, sometimes in a hammy way; Weinberg was the quiet, damaged soul who simply went to a corner and wept silently to himself.

I understand Weinberg only too well because I knew a concentration camp survivor when I was growing up, and although she was outwardly friendly, as much as someone like that could be, she, too, felt a grief so deep and so hurtful that she could never quite recover. If you think being a military veteran is traumatic, and it is, just imagine what it was like to see friends and/or relatives reduced to screaming skeletons in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Weinberg lost his entire family and most of his friends in the camps, and it damaged him psychologically for life. This is what he brought out in his music, particularly the symphonies, a hurt that almost goes beyond human understanding.

In the 21st Symphony, written in a similar vein but much richer in its themes and better developed, Gražinyté-Tyla conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Here we get a full body of strings and, yes, they are using vibrato, albeit the kind of tight, fast vibrato that conductors like Rodziński and Toscanini preferred. This is fine with me. And, I have to say this, I really do believe that Gražinyté-Tyla has an easier time getting exactly what she wants from this orchestra because the strings are able to project emotion more fully. She is not a cold conductor—if you’re performing Weinberg, you had better not be—and this performance is even more heartfelt than that of the second symphony. Once again Kremer plays the violin solos, very emotionally albeit with his characteristically wiry, sometimes harsh tone.

The second movement, an “Allegro molto,” has a great deal of dissonance and edginess, with blaring trumpet figures and occasional snare drum accents. When it finally gets going, Weinberg plays high, rhythmically asymmetrical violins against broader figures played by the celli and basses, but again the edginess takes over as do the trumpets and drum. Comparing Gražinyté-Tyla’s performance to the only live version I was able to find online, by the Warsaw Philharmonic under Jaček Kaspszyk, one hears in the latter a more relaxed performance, slightly slower and warmer, yet lacking the one thing that Gražinyté-Tyla brings to it, which is a tighter sense of structure. In addition, Kaspszyk lacks the greater edginess that she brings to this second movement in particular—her performance of the contrapuntal figures have much more bite—though judged on his own merits, one would say that Kaspszyk is quite good.

The edgy second movement moves without pause into the third-movement “Largo,” but this is a Largo without relaxation. It just sounds like a slower section of the “Allegro molto,” even when the volume decreases. There is a surprising solo here for double bass, played by Iurii Gavryliuk, following which the trumpets, lower and softer now, return with fanfares. A grotesque clarinet is heard for a bit as well, playing in a quasi-klezmer style but with more sadness than joy. This, too, moves seamlessly into the third-movement “Presto,” led by the now-squawking clarinet against high strings and tubas with cymbal accents. Midway through, both the volume and tempo recede for a plaintive violin solo. This slow section melts into the fifth-movement “Andantino,” which in turn blends into the long last movement, nearly 14 minutes long. Much to my surprise and amazement, Gražinyté-Tyla is also the soprano soloist here, singing the high, wordless chant with a pure, light voice, better placed and resembling some of our finest modern-day Baroque and Classical-era vocalists. Her singing is followed, after a long pause, by a slow, sad theme played by the celli, also with interruptions of silence—and what sounds like a harmonium or an accordion, of all things, playing alone until the piccolo interrupts with a few high chirps. The solo clarinet also makes a reappearance, backed by soft French horns and giving way to the violin and, again, our soprano-conductor. After a loud outburst from her, high strings return playing loud, edgy figures, backed by tympani and trombones. before the music ends in quietude.

I’m sure that some of those reading this review will process what I am saying about Weinberg’s music and stay away. Yes, slow classical music is very much in vogue nowadays, but not emotionally powerful slow music, particularly not music that channels grief. What people want classical music to be is a soporific, something to relax them after a hard day’s work, to cheer them up, to drift them off to sleep. Music like Weinberg’s should never be listened to that way. You must be in both a receptive and a good frame of mind before putting it on, otherwise it will take you to dark places in your mind and soul that you won’t want to visit.

If I had to categorize Gražinyté-Tyla’s conducting, I would place her in the same school as such modern Nordic conductors as Esa-Pekka Salonen and such noted Hungarians as Fritz Reiner and Ferenc Fricsay. Hers is a clean, no-nonsense approach that still allows for a strong emotional impact, though it lacks some of the unorthodox phrasing (which could be very interesting) and rubato touches of Rodziński, Toscanini and Dórati. She is clearly a major talent, however, and I sincerely hope that she will provide us with more Weinberg symphonies currently unavailable on disc.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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