Trio Khnopff Plays Weinberg

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WEINBERG: Piano Trio. Cello Sonata No. 1. 2 Songs Without Words. Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 no. 3 / Trio Khnopff: Sadie Fields, vln; Roman Dhainaut, cel; Stéphanie Salmin, pno / Pavane ADW7590

This is the latest entry of those CDs issued to celebrate Mieczysław Weinberg’s 100th anniversary, an anniversary, sadly, not shared by the commercial classical world at large. No, they’re too busy whooping it up about Leonard Bernstein and probably some tired old 17th or 18th-century composer whose music goes in one ear and out the other, rather than celebrate one of the most original and creative musical minds of the 20th century. But hey, that’s life in the classical music biz, right?

The Cello Sonata No. 1 and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes are, ironically, two of his pieces that have sort of stuck in the repertoire of many chamber musicians, thus they’d had a few other recordings, but the large Piano Trio of 1945 is still a virtual rarity and this is the first-ever recording of his Songs Without Words. What struck me immediately about the Piano Trio was not how much it sounded like other early scores of his but, rather, how much it sounds like mature Weinberg, particularly the first-movement “Prelude and Aria” with its sad but not treacly theme, redolent of the pain he felt inside from the destruction of his family in the recently-concluded World War. And in the second movement, Weinberg almost explodes with rage at the senselessness of it all—but please note, young composers, he knew how to construct music logically. Like Debussy, he just broke some of the rules in creating entirely new forms around the basic structure; he wasn’t just throwing out aimless, noisy shards of notes.

Khnopff The Supreme Vice

Fernand Khnopff, “The Supreme Vice,” 1885

The young Trio Khnopff, named after Belgian painter Fernand Khnopff, have apparently made a specialty of this piece. In the liner notes, the trio’s musicians make it very clear that this work has been a staple of their repertoire since its founding: “The huge emotional spectrum, the quality and originality of the writing, the instrumental challenge…all comes together in this Trio to create a work that resonates deeply with us and has been something of a constant companion.” And you can tell that it is. Their performance is as deep and touching as the notes on the page themselves, much like Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla’s stupendous performance of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 22 which I reviewed elsewhere on this blog. The slowly arching melody and gradual crescendo in the long third movement is so deeply and intensely played that it will bring you to tears. It did so for me. This is clearly one of Weinberg’s great masterpieces, created when he was only 26 years old. Absolutely amazing.

As is so often the case in Weinberg’s music, he undermines our expectations of what a “finale” should sound like. Although this one is indeed taken at a quick pace, its Eastern European harmonies and minor-key bias make it sound like a resignation of the world, as if he is just so hurt by it all that he needs to get some of his negative feelings out in music. But again, there is no whining, no bathos, no breast-beating, and he does not forget how to write fugues and canons in this finale. He just had a different way of looking at music. Violinist Sadie Fields, in particular, tears into this music as if her very life depended on it, her instrument screaming in protest against the injustice of broken and prematurely ended lives. If this performance doesn’t move you, you have no soul. At the 6:15 mark the music suddenly pulls back from the abyss, giving us slow, quiet, sad themes which take us to the end—another way of upsetting our expectations.

The group’s cellist, Roman Dhainaut, plays the first Cello Sonata with as deep feeling as the group as a whole played the trio. I like this performance even better than that of Andrew Yee on the Calliope label, though that is a good one as well. Cut from the same cloth as the Trio, it was written in one week during April 1945 but not given its first public performance until 1962. I would be remiss if I did not also praise pianist Stéphanie Salmin, whose rich, deep-in-the-keys tone and equally deep feeling acts as an under-cushion for the music on this CD. It’s difficult to describe Weinberg’s music as “modern” despite his use of whole tone scales and chromatic harmonies; a better description would simply be “unusual and timeless.” It seems to inhabit a sound world entirely of its own. His scores don’t even resemble those of his close friend Shostakovich, but it is exactly this “unusualness” that kept them out of the Soviet repertoire as a rule and also keeps them from being appreciated by the wider public today. He was the Berlioz or the Mahler of the late 20th century, a man whose music was too unusual for its time. It exerts a strange and almost indescribable emotional strain on the listener. You can’t always describe or even “follow” his music in conventional terms, yet it affects you so deeply that you can’t pull away from it.

The Songs Without Words are among Weinberg’s unpublished pieces from the same period, only recently resurfacing in the archives, thus this is its first recording. The first is a lyrical “Andantino” written in the manner of Prokofiev while the second, a “Larghetto,” is a transcription of his 1942 Aria for String Quartet. This latter piece, say the notes, is “a Slavonic cousin to Fauré’s famous Aprês un rêve.” They are gently pastoral pieces, lacking the angst of much of Weinberg’s other music from this time.

We end with the famous Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, written in 1949 in order to comply with Stalin’s dictum against “formalism” in music, demanding that composers write music based on folk tunes that could appeal to The People.

All in all, then, a truly great CD, particularly in the case of the Piano Trio and the rare Songs Without Words.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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