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ClassicsOnline Home » WEINBERG, M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Brewster Franzetti)
This second volume of the complete piano works ranges in date from 1950–55. The Partita is notable for its alternation of the intimate and the intensely dramatic, whereas the Sonatina is lyrical, though never straightforward. The Piano Sonata No 4 fuses folk inspiration, rhythmic vivacity and melancholy in a profoundly personal way.
By Steve Holtje
By Craig Zeichner
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–96)
Partita, Op 54 • Sonata No 4, Op 56 • Sonatina, Op 49
Weinberg’s two escapes from Nazi invasion (of his native Poland in 1939 and of his adopted Soviet Union in 1941) were by no means the end of his life dramas. Like many of his fellow composers he found himself a target during the ‘anti-formalism’ affair of 1948, and like many of his fellow-citizens of Jewish origin he fell under suspicion as part of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign that got under way almost simultaneously, all the more intensely because his father-in-law was Solomon Mikhoels, the great Jewish actor, murdered under Stalin’s orders, and because Mikhoels’ cousin, Miron Vovsi, was one of those implicated in the infamous ‘Doctors’ plot’ of early 1953.
During these years Weinberg was tailed by the secret police, and it was no great surprise to him when he was arrested in February 1953 on trumped-up charges of ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’ and interrogated at Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison. At this time Shostakovich, together with their mutual friend Levon Atovmyan, interceded on his behalf, to the point of writing a letter to Lavrentiy Beriya, feared head of the MGB (renamed KGB a year later). It took the death of Stalin to trigger Weinberg’s release in late April. Even so, his never robust health had been seriously affected, and a period of recovery followed.
Composed later the same year, the Partita for Piano, Op 54, dedicated to Atovmyan, presents a curious case. Although a copyist’s score survives, the work was not published, and it is easy to see why it might have been considered too idiosyncratic. The ten movements, Prelude, Chorale, Serenade, Sarabande, Intermezzo, March, Aria, Ostinato, Etude and Canon, are a tale of two halves, the first five and the Aria being as subdued and intimate as the remainder are dramatic and virtuosic. The Prelude is wistful and with a faint ethnic colouring, while the equally diminutive Chorale, marked to be played ppp throughout, is the only piece by Weinberg explicitly so entitled, even though generically chorales are to be found in many of his works and always at significant expressive junctures. Scarcely more assertive is the gentle Serenade. The Sarabande has a certain statuesque grandeur, somewhat indebted to the finale of Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No 2; but it too tends towards intimacy as it progresses, and any hint of a gradual increase in intensity across the cycle is soon countered by the once-again wistful Intermezzo.
Up to this point we could be in the world of the ‘non-conflictual’ music typical of the 1948–53 period in the Soviet arts. Then out of the blue an implacable, almost philistine March intrudes, seemingly taking its cue from the first movement of the same Shostakovich Sonata Weinberg had referenced in the Sarabande (in fact he had also excised very similar music from the original score of his First Symphony, which pre-dates Shostakovich’s work). Both the structure and the technical demands are here hugely amplified. A chaste Aria then provides a moment of respite, with reminiscences of the opening Prelude, before an Ostinato, in quintuple metre and pp staccato throughout, conveys a mixture of anxiety and inhuman drive. The Etude, in 10/8 and laid out in rushing parallel motion between the hands, clearly emulates the ‘wind-over-the-graves’ texture of the finale of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata. Finally the Canon, marked ff sempre marcatissimo, rounds off the cycle on a note of grand-scale determination, demanding full-sized ‘lion’s-paw’ technique and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the last of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.
A prime expectation of Soviet composers in the 1948–53 period 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 G major Allegro leggiero opening movement becomes not entirely straightforward to play if its crotchet=200 metronome marking (the same marking as the Scherzo of Weinberg’s Fifth String Quartet) is followed. Most interesting of the three movements is surely the central Adagietto lugubre, with its walking-bass theme varying from three to five bars in its rotations. Beginning fugally, the final Allegretto feels somewhat truncated; indeed the curiously inhibited dimensions of the piece as a whole may be one reason why Weinberg returned to it in 1978, expanding and rebalancing the form, and rebranding the work as Sonata, Op 49bis (see Vol 1 of Allison Franzetti’s Grand Piano series / GP 603).
The four-movement Piano Sonata No 4 in B minor, Op 56, was composed in July/August 1955, the period since the Partita having been largely devoted to the ballet, The Golden Key. It was dedicated to Emil Gilels, who had been championing Weinberg’s piano works since they met in wartime Tashkent. Gilels gave the première on 19 February 1957 and went on to make a superb recording. As in the first three sonatas, there is little sign of the flamboyance that characterises Prokofiev’s central Piano Sonatas, Nos 6–8, but the tone of voice has deepened and become more personal in the nine years since the third sonata, notwithstanding numerous echoes of Shostakovich, and the classic four-movement mould here returns to provide a strong disciplining force.
The gentle melancholy mood established in the very first bar comes with an underlying sense of unease and dogged insistence, akin to the F sharp minor Prelude from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, while the warmer, chordally constructed second subject has strong affinities with the corresponding theme in Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet. A large-scale development section brings all this material to a passionate climax, followed by a regular recapitulation, and a coda that finally pacifies the first subject’s demons. The second movement is a rhythmically lively scherzo, tensely vigilant in character and elaborate in structure. There follows an introverted Adagio, once again indebted to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata for its arching melodies and elliptical harmonies. Jewish folk-intonations are never far from the surface in this work, especially in the finale’s rondo theme. The Sonata ends in peaceful melancholy, quoting material from earlier in the movement in a pacified yet mournful way, with a final recall of the central Largo of the slow movement.
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