ClassicsOnline Home » WEINBERG, M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Brewster Franzetti)
The works on this first volume of the complete piano works of Mieczysław Weinberg range from very early yet characterful Mazurkas and the remarkably intense Lullaby, his Opus 1, to the at times dissonant Piano Sonata No 1 and the more classically oriented Piano Sonata No 2. The Sonata, Op 49bis is a 1978 expansion and rebalancing of a work originally completed in 1951.
By Steve Holtje
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–96)
Complete Piano Works • 1
Like his friend and mentor, Shostakovich, Weinberg was a composer and pianist, whose career progressively emphasized the former rôle at the expense of the latter. From the age of twelve, after an initial period of self-tuition and some experience in his father’s band of theatre musicians, he began taking piano lessons from one Mrs Matulewicz (first name unknown), who ran a music school in Warsaw and who soon realised that his talent would be best nurtured at the Warsaw Conservatory. There he came under the supervision of Józef Turczyński (1884–1953), a pianist and pedagogue of considerable repute.
From the age of fifteen Weinberg had to help support the family income by performing at weddings and in bars and restaurants. At the same time he mastered repertoire as advanced as the Liszt Sonata in B minor and also found time to appear in concert, winning positive reviews for his part in the premières of Andzrej Panufnik’s Piano Trio and the Piano Concerto by Zbigniew Turski. Turczyński reportedly considered Weinberg one of his two best students, the other being the celebrated Witold Malcużyński.
When the famous piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann (1876–1957) appeared in Warsaw on tour, Turczyński presented Weinberg to him. Hofmann was so enthusiastic that he invited Weinberg to continue his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, of which Hofmann was director. That prospect was shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. Weinberg fled east to Minsk in Belorussia, leaving behind his parents and sister, all of whom later perished in the camps. It was in Minsk that he began formal composition training, under the Rimsky-Korsakov pupil Vasily Zolotaryov, and the focus of his career began to shift. Following another move—to Tashkent in 1941, escaping from another Nazi invasion—he finally settled in Moscow from October 1943. His less than robust health limited the possibilities of solo performance (tuberculosis of the spine had left him with a slight stoop). Nevertheless he continued to perform occasionally in chamber ensembles and for auditions of various works at the Soviet Composers’ Union. His own recordings, notably of his Piano Quintet with the Borodin Quartet, of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony in duet with the composer, and of the première of Shostakovich’s cycle of Blok Romances, where he stood in for the indisposed Sviatoslav Richter, testify to his continuing fluency.
The great majority of Weinberg’s piano works date from the first half of his composing life, and as such they tell us much about his path to maturity and individuality. The earliest to survive are the two Mazurkas, in F minor and A minor, dated in the manuscript 17 and 21 November 1933, respectively, a few weeks before his fourteenth birthday. Not surprisingly, there are signs of immaturity in the urge to over-complicate things, while the piano-writing shows a mixture of gaucheness and extravagance not untypical of a gifted, self-taught youngster. Nevertheless these are characterful pieces, perhaps giving us a taste of what Weinberg might have been playing at the time in his father’s Jewish theatre ensemble, and the preservation of the manuscript, together with the fact that the title-page shows a dedication to Turczyński, suggests that Weinberg held the Mazurkas in some affection. No other opus-numbered pieces pre-dating his actual Op 1 have been discovered.
That definitive Op 1 was to be the Lullaby, dated 24 October 1935. After a deceptively transparent opening this far from simple piece soon becomes remarkably intense, its rocking motion suggesting passion more than consolation—a lullaby in the mind of a suffering parent, perhaps, rather than one written from the child’s point of view. Stylistically this piece represents the neo-impressionist direction that Weinberg considered to be the right one for him before his epiphanic encounter with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in Minsk. The lullaby genre would recur frequently in his output, and the rocking motion of oscillating intervals—typically perfect fourths—would become a signature motif.
During his two years in Minsk, Weinberg expanded his expressive range, without fundamentally changing track. Dedicated to pianist-composer Aleksey Klumov, the Piano Sonata No 1, Op 5, of 1940 keeps intact the somewhat tortuous expressive language of the earlier works, but adds to it a vein of roughened-up dissonance and a gymnastic physicality whose main aim seems to be to force the pianist’s body into contortions. The opening movement contrasts an austere, slow prelude with a central section that recalls the Prelude of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (composed in the same year, so that any similarity can only be put down to coincidence). This rather solemn music is followed by a scherzo built on one of Shostakovich’s most characteristic repeated-note figures. The following Andantino serves as a troubled intermezzo, before a finale in Prokofievian tarantella style.
The Piano Sonata No 2 in A minor, Op 8, was composed in 1942 and first performed by Emil Gilels in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 16 October 1943, shortly after Weinberg’s move to the city that would remain his home until his death. The two men had met in Tashkent, where the sonata was composed. This was the first example of a major Soviet artist devoting himself to Weinberg’s cause. The structural layout of the Second Sonata is more classically balanced than that of the First, and its textures are more streamlined. The perpetuum mobile etude-like first movement is followed by an attractive scherzo in fantastic-waltz character, a broad, slow third movement, in Prokofievian singing-neoclassical style, and—following without a break—an elegant gigue-style rondo that gradually re-acquires the first movement’s insistent drive.
In 1948 Weinberg found himself in trouble, along with most of his prominent fellow-composers, as Stalin’s post-war campaign to remind artists of their civic duties worked its way round to musicians. A prime expectation of Soviet composers in the following years, up to Stalin’s death in 1953, was to embody folk or folk-like themes in easily accessible forms. This led to a spate of instrumental works of modest proportions, often targeted at young people or students, whether as performing or listening material. In its original form Weinberg’s Sonatina for piano, Op 49, composed in 1950–51 and dedicated to Shostakovich, fits more or less snugly into that category. Its three movements are lyrical, transparent in texture, and formally concise, though by no means entirely predictable in their internal proportions. The somewhat inhibited tone of the work—understandable given the circumstances of composition—may be one reason why Weinberg returned to it in 1978, expanding and rebalancing the form and rebranding the work Sonata, Op 49bis. Not that the structure is any more regular as a result. The first movement redistributes material from the opening to a newly-added central section, and even adds repeats to both sections and a new coda. The entirely new Andantino frames an innocent-sounding waltz with passages of harmonic asperity more typical of Weinberg’s post-Shostakovich idiom than the directness of his other works from around 1950. Most strikingly of all, the final movement is considerably expanded, incorporating more or less the entirety of the original slow movement and a recomposition of the second piece from the second volume of Weinberg’s Children’s Notebooks, Op 19 (the waltz in the sonata’s Andantino second movement comes from the sixth piece in the same collection). Given the inconsistency of harmonic idiom and the curious structural layout, it is perhaps no surprise that Weinberg did not include this work as one of his numbered piano sonatas or give it a separate opus number (as he did when he came to recast his first two string quartets in the 1980s).