Stein Plays Weinberg’s Flute Music

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WEINBERG: Flute Concerti Nos. 1 & 2.1 12 Pieces for Flute & Orchestra.1 5 Pieces for Flute & Piano2 / Claudia Stein, fl; 1Szczecin Philharmonic Orch., cond. David Robert Coleman; 2Elisaveta Blumina, pno / Naxos 8.573931

In this, the year of Mieczysław (“Moisey”) Weinberg’s centenary, recordings of his music have indeed been issued, but in a much more sporadic fashion than those honoring other composers’ anniversaries in other years. This is the most recent entry, and it’s a good one.

Weinberg’s music for flute were mainly conceived for Soviet flautist Alexander Korneyev, one of Russia’s great virtuosi on that instrument. What surprised me the most about the first flute concerto is that, although it was written in 1961, it has a very strong Prokofiev-like feel to it, with strong rhythms and harmonies (but not themes) based on Russian folk music. Perhaps this was one of those rare times in the post-Stalinist world when composers were still being forced into populist pigeonholes in order to avoid charges of elitism, but whatever the reason for his more conventional approach to composition, it is evident in this work.

But even so, Weinberg asserted his individuality in the pensive second movement. He was always at his most expressive in slow tempi, and this movement is no exception. The heavy, almost weary-sounding nudges by the basses and celli playing whole notes in 3/4 time underneath the flute’s long, soulful melody mark this immediately as one of Weinberg’s mature works. Of course, Prokofiev, too, wrote slow movements with similar but not identical moods. We know that Weinberg and Shostakovich were best friends, but I’ve always wondered if the older composer (Prokofiev) took any notice of this highly talented youngster when he came to the Soviet Union in 1939, fleeing persecution by the Nazis, and established himself fairly quickly as a major player in Soviet music of the period. Unusually for Weinberg, the third movement follows the second without a pause, changing the mood slightly with its livelier tempo. It does not, however, completely alleviate the bittersweet mood of the second; it is not an out-and-out jolly piece despite its somewhat bouncy rhythm, in part due to it leaning towards the minor even when it is not specifically in the minor.

Flautist Claudia Stein, who studied flute and piano at the Dresden Hochschule für Musik, is a very skilled performer who obviously enjoyed playing this music. Her liveliness is tempered by her close attention to such details as the constantly shifting rhythms and dynamics in Weinberg’s scores. I found her playing to be exceptional in every way; she is no cookie-cutter flute player.

The second flute concerto from 1987 is not nearly as chipper in the first movement as the earlier work, but rather surprisingly subdued in mood for an “Allegro.” Weinberg’s constantly shifting harmonies with their unusual and sometimes “rootless” chord sequences inform the underlying string texture accompanying the soloist, yet once again—i.e., at the 2:40 mark in this movement—one hears yet another allusion to Prokofiev’s style, followed by oddly stilted, almost choppy phrases played by soloist and orchestra. This is yet another way in which Weinberg asserted his individuality as a composer without unduly stressing that difference.

As in the first concerto, the second movement deepens the mood, with the flute playing short motifs (not even fully fledged themes) above the slow-moving strings. Eventually, the soloist plays a long melodic line over gently rocking figures in the violas and cellos. The last movement picks up in mood where the first left off, being both slightly chipper yet also somewhat subdued.

By and large, the 12 Pieces for Flute & Orchestra are light works, at least for Weinberg. Written in 1947 and revised in 1983, the string writing is lightly scored and played gently for the most part. Only in the second piece does the orchestra really dominate the proceedings; most of the time, it is the harp that leads the orchestra, not the other way round. Occasionally, stronger rhythms are heard, as in the very short “Capriccio.” The “Waltz” (No. 6) is surprisingly lively and upbeat. Much to my surprise, the “Ode” (No. 7) is played mostly by the strings in a heavy, almost Aaron Copland-like manner.

By contrast, the five pieces for flute and piano show Weinberg in a playful mood…he opens the first of them with the theme from Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair and develops it in his own style. Interestingly, although this work was written in 1947 and supposedly published the following year, it wasn’t until recently that a copy of it was discovered. Written just before the Stalinist crackdown on “formalist” music, it, too, is rather playful for Weinberg, resembling in places the cheerful music he wrote for the Soviet TV series of Winnie the Pooh cartoons in the early 1970s.

This is an absolutely wonderful CD for those who love Weinberg as well as those who may be put off by some of his deeper and more forbidding music. It’s not all really “light” music, but most of it is clearly accessible and enjoyable.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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