Sunday 24 February 2013

Weinberg spotify collection

Just a quick post, for any readers who use the spotify music programme (if you don't, its worth looking into - essentially, it gives you a massive library of music to stream for free).

Here's a link for an all-Weinberg playlist on spotify:

Open playlist link


P.s. - credit to this person: Link to the creator of this playlist

Thursday 21 February 2013

Weinberg for beginners

Following a conversation with one of my colleagues at University, I hit upon the idea of 'Weinberg for beginners'! This post contains the absolute basics of Weinberg's biography and a selection of links to some of his most accessible music.

Admittedly, some of Weinberg's catalogue can prove very challenging. This list is targeted at those who might not have listened to his music before, and who might not even be familiar with Soviet music in general.

Weinberg in a nutshell

Weinberg was born in Poland in 1919 into a Jewish family. His father played in a local theatre orchestra and young Mieczysław began helping out, beginning his musical education. He joined the Warsaw Conservatoire to study piano at the age of 14, and narrowly missed an invitation to study in America.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Seeing that life for a young Jew would not be safe, Weinberg fled eastwards, leaving his family behind (they would all perish in the Holocaust). After several weeks exhaustive travel, the 19-year old Weinberg reached the Soviet Union and was accepted as a citizen, with his first name officially changed to 'Moisey'. He studied composition in the Minsk Conservatoire, but had to flee the Nazi advance again in 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Weinberg fled to Tashkent, and his compositions began attracting considerable attention. Weinberg sent the score of his First Symphony to his recently discovered idol, Shostakovich, and the older composer invited him to move to Moscow.

Weinberg was to live in Moscow for the rest of his life, with his music celebrated by such famous performers as David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kiril Kondrashin and the Borodin Quartet. But he didn't escape the unpleasant side of life under the Soviet Regime. The post-war Soviet political climate became increasingly antisemitic, and Weinberg's father-in-law was murdered on Stalin's orders in 1948. At the height of this political fervour, Weinberg himself was imprisoned for several months in 1953 - it was only after Stalin's death that he was released.

The experience left him a changed man. He dedicated the rest of his life to writing music, much of it in commemoration of the victims of war. Weinberg proved an extremely prolific author, with 26 symphonies, 7 operas, 17 string quartets and many more besides, in a catalogue of over 150 works.
His music is enjoying a revival in the Western World, following a time when he was neglected. This was partly from his own keen sense of modesty, but also because of the huge success of a younger generation of Soviet composers who eclipsed Weinberg. Now, however, his music is beginning to enjoy the success it deserves.



 Cello Concerto - Op. 43, 1st movement

 Clarinet sonata, Op. 28

Cartoon 'Vinnie Puh', with score by Weinberg

Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 52

 String Quartet No. 17, Op. 146

Piano Sonata No.3, Op. 31

Piano Quintet, Op. 18, 1st mvt.
Symphony No. 18, Op. 138
Symphony No. 1, Op. 10
Quartet No. 2, Op. 3/145, 4th Mvt.

I hope that serves as an introduction for you, and you're inspired to listen to more Weinberg. There's certainly a lot more out there. Enjoy!

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Focus: Piano Quintet, Op. 18

For the second work in my focus series, I will be examining the Piano Quintet, Op. 18, one of Weinberg's most famous pieces.


The Quintet was written in August - October 1944, indicative of a wider period of intense creativity and the culmination of experience accrued over a short number of years. Weinberg had by this point been settled in Moscow little over a year, and the immediate success of the Quintet demonstrates how quickly he had managed to ingratiate himself into musical life in the Soviet capital. Weinberg was enjoying the rich musical life of Russia during WWII, when the beady eye of Soviet authority was more relaxed in its control of the arts, since it was chiefly concerned with the war effort. After 1945, the walls of the Soviet government would come crashing down on Weinberg. The high level of maturity displayed here had been hinted in several works previously, particularly the 3rd Quartet, Op. 14. But only in the Piano Quintet does Weinberg reach a style that can arguably be called 'his own'.

The work is cast in five movements, similar to Shostakovich's Piano Quintet of 1940, Op. 57. The character is overwhelmingly energetic yet serious, despite a cheekily-playful opening movement and a languid fourth movement. The cold mood of the work could be argued makes it less immediately accessible than Shostakovich's famous work (though I would retort that Weinberg's gift for melody really sells the Quintet). The ensemble writing is excellent throughout, with overtones that would resonate throughout much of his later output, including the piano trio, Op. 24, and many of his subsequent chamber works. 

The first performance took place in Moscow on 18th March 1945, with Emil Gilels and the Bolshoy Theatre String Quartet. One of the most remarkable recordings we have is with Weinberg himself on the piano with the Borodin Quartet - the recording featured here in the youtube links (a select list of recommended recordings will be posted in a few days).

I - Moderato con moto

For me, the opening phrase of this movement really stands out. I have to admit, this was the first Weinberg work that really caught my attention, and it was this opening phrase that grabbed me. The strings open as a unit, with a syncopated rhythm that generates so much playfulness for the rest of the movement. The piano enters in unison octaves with a cold melody and together with the strings, they meander through a progression that looks perfectly normal on paper, and yet the effect is simply mesmerising in performance.
        Just before fig. 7, the music moves to the major, setting up the major/minor opposition that proves the common thread uniting the whole work (along with that opening theme, which will be revisited later). The dotted second theme in the strings provides the voice for this major section. The writing throughout the Quintet very much treats the piano and strings as seperate units, almost as seperate protaganists in a discourse. The piano isn't treated as a soloist per se, just as an opposing voice to the strings (with the piano frequently taking the more aggressive outbursts). Following this, a move to F sharp minor for a development section at Fig. 11, combining both themes in the best classical tradition (though with a very liquid sense of tonality at some points).
        Fig. 18 is the closest to a recapitulation, indicated by the return to the F minor of the opening theme. Here, the strings take this theme while the piano plays ascending chromatic chords, adding to the mounting tension. Fig. 23 sees the return of the second theme, this time in D flat major and featured in the solo piano, with the strings responding. In fact, listening closely, the material itself remains relatively untouched (its tonality aside), but the parts swapped - the strings taking the piano's statements and vice versa. Fig. 27 marks the start of a final section that I would dub a coda - triplets in the piano ascending chromatically indicating a final climax of tension. But, to dash expectations, this energy dissipates to slow chords, before the initial tempo resumes and tiny snatches of the first theme are heard before the movement glides to a pianissimo close.

II - Andante

The meandering feel continues in this slower movement, with its syncopated theme introduced in the strings only opening. This is transformed by virtuosic writing in the piano part, which takes the theme and translates it into a hectic triplet dominated solo texture (a good demonstration of Weinberg's pianistic skills). The piano fades to sparse octaves, and the strings accompany with pizzicato lines before the piano regains energy oncemore towards fig. 39. Here the virtuosity explodes across the ensemble, with the hectic triplets even more effective in the string parts. At fig. 42 this builds to massive chords, before the strings take centre-stage again, with only a hint of the anxious triplet motif from earlier.
        By the time piano emerges, this texture has changed to a macabre cabaret at fig. 48. This is made even more cold in feeling by the 'col legno' string statements over the menacing piano at fig. 50. The strings restate the opening material in an aggressive unison just before fig. 52 - if its strings vs. piano in this quintet, the strings seem to be winning in this movement. The viola sings a final cantilena before an ambiguous B major chord closes the movement.

III. Presto

This movement is undoubtedly a Presto, but you might not necessarily judge that from the very opening. The muted strings open with several quiet flurries and long pauses  between each statement. Over this, the piano enters with long octave unison notes high above the strings. It all feels relatively static and direction-less in the opening.
     The piano at fig. 64 proves the saviour, with a staccato flurry in octaves joined with pizzicato strings (with strong ties to the striking harmonic progression in the first movement). The piano and strings then alternate aggressive exchanges of the opening theme, building in intensity. The 'cabaret' feel is revived, with piano gliss. lines accompanied by trilling strings (giving a hint of Klezmer, also). Fig. 75 ends this, with unison strings and bashing piano chords that recalls the second theme from the first movement, but with an added sense of finality here. This leads to a lilting dance section, with unusual time signature of 9/4. A brief Chopin-esque piano passage leads to a restatement of this dancing theme before the piano rejoins the strings in aggressive ascending octaves leading to a restatement of the opening material. Once again, the 'cabaret' theme resurfaces, with extra piano embellishment for good measure. The movement ends with a flurry based on that 'striking harmonic progression' from the opening.

IV. Largo

I would argue that this slow movement is the most challenging, the biggest obstacle to a new listener. Its character is stark to say the least, verging on oppressive. Nevertheless, it does provide the antidote to the vibrant energy of the previous three movements. It opens with a long line set in unison octaves across all parts with an overwhelmingly minor tonality. The violin then plays a mournful solo, above ever-painful string chords. This texture fades to bare solo lines, ever decreasing in energy. Suddenly, a burst of major in the piano. But this isn't a happy major. Its even more painful than the minor its set in, similar to Schubert. Following this, the mournful solo moves to the piano in a lengthy unaccompanied passage (reminiscent of Janacek).
      The cello takes up the mood, moving towards optimism in its solo passage at fig. 104, accompanied by cold octaves in the piano. The whole ensemble than drags itself together, endlessly tolling the 4th leap that opened the work in the first movement, with ascending piano chromaticism. Not even the promise of the relative activity can save the dreary atmosphere in this movement. Only the passion increases, with lamenting violin lines reaching ever higher in pitch and dynamic - Weinberg contrasts these with funereal chords below. Just before fig. 109, the solo piano reenters, beginning a coda-like passage towards the end of the movement. All that is left for the material now is to literally die away, with the crushing ending chord, marked 'morendo'.

V. Allegro agitato
What is there left to do, if the 'drama' of a work appears to have killed off the hero? In my own personal reading, this final movement then becomes an act of revenge in the 'story' (just a personal reading, mind).
       The energetic opening could be perhaps be foward-thinking to American minimalist music, if it weren't for the ever-aggressive piano part in the beginning. Against the Stravinsky-esque rhythmic cell, Weinberg is constantly usurping the listener's expectations. He keeps changes the beat emphasis of the semiquaver to crotchet motif accompanying it, whether it be in the piano or the strings.
    But then something even more unexpected. Fig. 118 sees a solid confirmation of the F major tonality of this final movement before the strings spring into a fiddle-like theme, strongly reminiscent of English folk tunes. For a little while, Weinberg's discourse on this is somewhat over-academic, but not for long. The piano's interruption to this theme gives a heavily syncopated counterpart, with the minor-major third inflection over-suggesting jazz music (an influence that was not approved in the USSR beforehand - again indicative of the relative freedom composers of chamber music enjoyed during the war). Before Weinberg goes too far into the direction of a suite on English themes, the 2nd violin plays a slowed version of the first theme from the opening movement above the piano's romping octave treatment of the 'jig' theme. But that hint at the opening is soon replaced with a minor treatment of the jig, increasing in aggression before a sudden return to the opening material after fig. 131.
    Fig. 136 sees an unusual combination - the sonority and textures of that opening material applied to the fiddle-like reel of the second theme. The resulting effect is somewhat disorientating, like a relentlessly happy funeral wake. This transforms into an even more disorientating unison trill texture, which gives way to a huge restatement of the opening theme from the first movement at fig. 142. This definitely sends like ending material, making the whole quintet 'cyclic' in structure.
    For a final coda, this theme moves to the 1st violin, accompanied by a grumbling piano which slowly paves the way to the quiet respite of the coda. The opening theme of the final movement is altered to be even quieter and much less menacing, dying away. The strings die away on a sweet F major chord, the piano grumbling quietly away right until the end.


I hope you enjoy the Quintet - its most certainly one of my favourite Weinberg pieces. I hope my listening notes are of some interest to some of you. A follow-up review of the best recordings of the Quintet will follow in a few days time. 

Sunday 3 February 2013

Upcoming Weinberg celebration in Hamburg

The Russisches Kammermusikfest Hamburg has announced pianist Elisaveta Blumina as their artistic director for this year's festival, held August-September. As you may be aware, Blumina has played a pivotal role in several excellent Weinberg recordings. As a result, the festival this year will be a focus on Weinberg's music. Here's a description:

'Russisches Kammermusikfest Hamburg

The special charm of Russian chamber music is the freshness and inspiration of Russian composers. In the 19th and 20th century Russian music reflects the influence of Russian folk songs, Russian literature and fairy tales, but also European classical music.

These countless nuances of Russian chamber music enrich this unique
national music festival in Hamburg. Hamburg is not only a sister city of St. Petersburg for over 55 years, but also has many cultural and economic ties with the rest of Russia.
The festival is being held for the fourth year.

For this year's festival, the pianist Elisaveta Blumina takes the helm as Artistic Director.
Elisaveta Blumina was born in Leningrad. She studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, and later went on to study with Evgeny Korolev at the Hochschule for Music and Theatre in Hamburg. Since then, Hamburg has become her second home and starting point for her international career.

This year, the festival will focus on the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996).
M. Weinberg is well known in the world of music. Shostakovich referred to Weinberg as being "one of the greatest composers of our time". A great artist with a fascinating original talent, Weinberg covered a wide spectrum of creative interests. In his lifetime he composed twenty-two symphonies, two sinfoniettas, four chamber symphonies, seven operas, four operettas, three ballets, seventeen string quartets, five concertos, music for numerous films and cartoons, and many theater productions.
Alongside Weinberg, there will be performances of further great composers such as Rachmaninov, Arensky, Silvestrov, Borodin, Medtner, Podgaiz, Gavrilin, Gliere, Davydov and many others.

We wish for you to enjoy the interesting concerts, great music, and meeting and listening to many world-renowned musicians.'

Here's a link for the website, which will be announcing concert and ticket details soon: Link