Gražinytė-Tyla’s Weinberg Symphonies

Weinberg CD cover

WEINBERG: Symphony No. 7 / Kirill Gerstein, hpd; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen / Flute Concerto No. 1.* Symphony No. 3 / *Marie-Christine Zupancic, fl; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, cond / DGG 00028948624034

Having already recorded Mieczysław Weinberg’s symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 three years ago for Deutsche Grammophon, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla here presents the Third and Seventh Symphonies along with the Flute Concerto No. 1. Although all have already been recorded by others, there are clear indications to me that, if finished, this is going to be the Weinberg Symphony set.

Comparing her performance here of the Third to Thor Svedlund with the Gothenberg Symphony, for instance, one hears very similar tempi but completely different phrasing. For the most part, Svedlund leads the music in a fairly chipper manner, propelling the fast passages with great energy. Gražinytė-Tyla also has energy to spare for those moments, but in the quieter, more reflective passages there is considerably more nuance, and with this greater nuance comes a wealth of feeling. It’s almost like hearing a recording in mono sound—very good, clear mono, but still mono—compared with state-of-the-art digital stereo. She just gets more out of her orchestra and, with that extra detail, a much deeper and more meaningful interpretation. One good example is the slow passage near the end of the first movement. Svedlund plays it with a Romantic sweep, but Gražinytė-Tyla relaxes it still further, as if trying to coax the sadness in this music to come forward.

Now, this is scarcely the deepest of Weinberg’s symphonies—the second movement is light and airy, in her hands as well as in Svedlund’s—yet even here she just gets something extra out of the music. Both she and Svedlund present a boisterous profile for this movement, but only she manages to elicit so much inner detail. And once again, she manages to get more serious near the end, playing the soft string tremolos as if they were made of ice crystals. In the slow third movement, she builds up the gradual crescendo slowly and masterfully. In the last movement, Gražinytė-Tyla drives the music forward with an almost manic force. But even when the opening tempo is fast, Weinberg’s symphonies almost never end on a happy or a triumphant note; sooner or later, the deep sadness comes into the picture, and this is so here—at least for a while. Then, he suddenly rallies for a fast ending, albeit one that sounds a bit more like a fit of panic than one of triumph.

Now mind you, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with Svedlund’s performance. All music is open to interpretation, and unless it is insensitive, there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward reading of the score, particularly in this early stage of Weinberg’s career when his angst was not so keenly felt. What Gražinytė-Tyla does is to “preview” the growing sadness in his music through her interpretation. This may or may not be what the composer intended, but it does work. It’s just another way of hearing the music.

And clearly, by the time he wrote the Seventh Symphony for harpsichord and orchestra in 1964, Weinberg’s sadness had clearly set in. In 1949, angry at his very modern scores, Stalin had his father-in-law killed in what was made to look like an auto accident, but the composer wasn’t fooled. He knew it was a “hose’s head” warning to him to play ball or face harsh treatment, possibly even death. By this time, the composer had formed a bond with Rudolf Barshai, conductor and co-founder with harpsichordist Andrey Volkansky of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and Barshai led the first performance of this symphony in 1964 with Volkansky as soloist. I have Barshai’s recording of this piece, and it is an exceptionally good one; so too is Gražinytė-Tyla’s. reading here. Both manage to maintain an aura of sadness even in the most chipper passages, which by this time was wholly appropriate. When passages are played with energy and forward momentum, they sound more ironic, like smiling through clenched teeth, than exuberant. Naturally, this new recording has far superior sonics to Barshai’s, but I still commend his interpretation to you as well.

Being five movements long rather than just three or four, Weinberg has a lot to say in this work. One is struck, for instance, how the solo harpsichord passages somehow manage to sound sad as well, since this is one of the most cheerful-sounding instruments in the world. I must give kudos to Kirill Gerstein for his sensitive, outstanding performance as well. The slow but loud and strident strings at the opening of the fourth movement are yet another indication of Weinberg’s internal angst. He was not only a unique composer in terms of musical style, using bitonality as both a means of expression and as an attack on insensitive listeners who couldn’t feel what he was feeling, but also highly unorthodox in form. His symphonies from about No. 5 onward have tremendous feeling in them, and this feeling must be brought out to make the performance work.

The opening of the last movement is wholly unique, sounding like a phone ringing that is not answered before going into soft, moving figures in the violins. Here, the harpsichord plays rambling, circular figures, busy music that basically goes nowhere. Weinberg continues to play with this phone-ringing motif on and off throughout the movement.

The Flute Concerto No. 1, evidently written to comply with the Soviets’ demand for accessible music, is an unusually chipper piece for him at this stage of his life (1961), but chipper it is. Coming on the CD between the Seventh and Third symphonies, it acts as a sort of upbeat emotional buffer. Gražinytė-Tyla’s performance, along with flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, is appropriately upbeat. There is little or no angst here, but how can you make a flute express sadness and despair? Not even Beethoven or Mahler could pull that off.

An excellent CD, then. One hopes that Gražinytė-Tyla’s Weinberg symphony recordings will grow exponentially. She understands his deepest feelings, and is able to translate them into sound.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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