Weinberg’s Clarinet Music

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WEINBERG: Clarinet Concerto. Clarinet Sonata.* Chamber Symphony No. 4 for Clarinet, Triangle and Strings / Robert Oberaigner, cl; *Michael Schöch, pno; Dresden Chamber Soloists; Michail Jurowski, cond / Naxos 8. 574192

The Weinberg discography continues to grow despite the efforts of most of the classical music establishment to shut him out of celebrations during his centenary year of 2019. Were it not for violinist Gidon Kremer and a handful of Polish musicians, Weinberg would not have been celebrated at all anywhere in the world though he is now universally regarded as one of the five or six most original composers of the 20th century.

None of these recordings are listed as world premieres, yet there don’t seem to be many rivals for the performances given here. One reason is that clarinetist Robert Oberaigner, though having a brighter and thus somewhat more generic timbre than that of Virginia Figueiredo, is an especially sensitive and thoughtful performer who really gets under the skin of these works. Not a note or phrase goes by one’s ear unnoticed or in a superfluous manner; he has really absorbed these works and knows what he is about. In addition, part of the excitement of these performances stems from the conducting of Michail Jurowski, older brother of the more famous Vladimir. Like his brother, Michail conducts not only with energy and drive but with a superb understanding of the flow and structure of the music, which helps things tremendously. Interestingly, one of Michael Jurowski’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory was Alexey Kandinsky, grandson of the famous artist and writer Wassily Kandinsky.

The duo of Oberaigner and Jurowski, then, give these works a very dramatic profile, something that Weinberg’s music simply cries out for. I was particularly struck by the straightforward drive and energy of the 1970 Clarinet Concerto; so much of Weinberg’s music, particularly his music post-1950, tends towards the kind of slower, more amorphous style that one hears in the second movement of this concerto.

Oddly, it is the Clarinet Sonata, written in 1945, that is the more intimate and amorphous music. It has a much less direct or linear construction and flow than the concerto, occasional outbursts by the clarinetist in a quasi-klezmer style, and a piano part consisting primarily of running, single-note figures in the right hand, with the left feeding chords. This is quintessential Weinberg: a little amorphous and hard to grasp both structurally and emotionally. The second-movement “Allegretto” has a more regular pulse but just as elusive harmony. It wasn’t that Weinberg wrote in an atonal style—he didn’t—but that his harmony was always shifting inside the chords in a strange manner, sometimes chromatically and sometimes sideways, which often undercut the listener’s ability to follow what was going on. Yet if one just listens passively, the music sounds a bit odd but somehow makes sense. Also typical of Weinberg is the slow final movement. Very few of his works end in a happy or triumphant manner.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Clarinet, Triangle & Strings was Weinberg’s last completed work, dating from 1992, though he was to live another four years. It is clearly the largest in form and structure, lasting more than a half-hour, and the triangle is heard only four times in the finale while a solo violin (played here by Federico Kasik) and cello (played by Friedwart Dittmann) also figure prominently. The opening movement of this work is, like so many of his compositions, slow and somewhat sad. The strings play what appears to be a brief repeated melodic line that sounds like an elegy; when the clarinet enters at 3:19, it plays a soft opposing melody using alternating eighth notes, which is then picked up by the strings and changed around a bit.

Weinberg gets more energetic in the second movement, but by sticking to what sounds like a minor mode the feeling is not so much happy as just a busier feeling of loneliness. Here, too, the solo clarinet squawks out some of its high notes almost as a plaintive cry for help. The ensuing section for the strings has a sterner feeling, like a resolution against loneliness, as if telling the clarinet to just calm down and accept being an outsider. The third movement begins with the clarinet over very soft murmurs by the basses while the solo cello plays an opposing melodic line, and we are back to a feeling of sadness.

Surprisingly, however, there is a glimmer of hope in the last movement where the clarinet plays a fairly lively theme against a background of static lower strings. Eventually, however, the slow strings take over, become louder, and tend to drown out the clarinet’s message.

An excellent recording, then, and a valuable addition to the Weinberg discography.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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