Thursday 31 October 2013

Review: Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Candida Thompson - Weinberg Concertino, Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies

For their 25th Anniversary, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta have chosen to record an album of Russian music, under the leadership of Artistic Director, Candida Thompson. The SACD disc comes in a handsome package, along with a 'making of' DVD as an extra (which I am yet to watch - I may add a note here if anything interesting arises). Excellent sound comes as a standard with this ensemble, who have previously recorded string orchestra arrangements of Shostakovich's 2nd and 4th Quartets. The Weinberg concertino has been recorded elsewhere, to be found on the Naxos label's 2011 release, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling, with Sergey Ostrovsky as soloist. This rendition is clearly the stronger option, if only as a document from the ensemble that gave the West-European premiere of the work in 2009.

Weinberg's Concertino, Op. 42

The Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra was written at the beginning of July 1948, while Weinberg was on holiday. This may perhaps explain the pastoral nature of the work. The three movements never stray far from the lyrical vein. The solo part is demanding throughout, particularly in the finale, but the ensemble writing is not particularly taxing. These factors combined would go to suggest the work may have been written as a holiday-relaxation exercise, while the accessibility and tunefulness might suggest an ambition to please official requirements for composers, particularly following the Composers' Union debacle witnessed at the start of the year. The Concertino can be viewed as a sister-work to the full-blown Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 43, written immediately afterwards. Indeed, the two share a lyrical mood, but the cello concerto is a near-symphonic work, with passages of heightened drama.
   The Concertino appears to have been 'written for the drawer' (i.e. Weinberg never heard it performed during his lifetime). It was certainly performed in Moscow in 1999, with a festival celebrating the 80th anniversary of the composer's birth. PeerMusic published the score in 2007, and it was the Amsterdam Sinfonietta who gave the Western premiere in 2009.


With this in mind, the handling of the Concertino is excellent. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta have a keen reputation for attention to detail, above all, dynamic control and balance. This is on full display throughout this recording - the pastoral mood of the Weinberg is communicated beautifully. The remaining pieces on the disc follow a recent trend of pairing a Weinberg work with Shostakovich that outdates it by some twenty years or so. In this case, Rudolf Barshai's arrangements of the Eighth and Tenth Quartets. The choice of the latter is perhaps obvious - Shostakovich's Tenth Quartet is dedicated to Weinberg, reflective of their quartet-writing 'competition' during the 1960s. The Eighth quartet is arguably Shostakovich's most famous work, a good for an opener for this disc.
   I myself have never been a great fan of Barshai's arrangements, dubbed 'Chamber Symphonies', even though they were made with Shostakovich's blessing. Perhaps I just enjoy the more intimate instrumentation of the string quartet. However, the renditions on this disc serve to change my mind; at least, for the duration of the album. Their approach to balance brings out many subtle shades in the Eighth Quartet, ones that are just not achievable in the quartet genre.

Overall, I rate this disc excellent, for the craftsmanship on display throughout and the sensitive approach to the music itself. For other recommended listening, I advise the Naxos 2011 rendition of the Concertino for comparison, and Rostropovich in the Weinberg Concerto.

Naxos Link

Saturday 12 October 2013

1966 photo - Kondrashin

Warsaw 1966 (Left to right: Weinberg, Nina Kondrashina and Kirill Kondrashin).

[N.B. Gregor Tassie's book 'Kondrashin, his Life and Music' dates this photograph to 1962, but Weinberg did not return to Poland until 1966, as part of the Soviet delegation for the Warsaw Autumn Festival of that year.]

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Why Weinberg?

Now that I find myself beginning the second year of my doctoral studies, I feel it is time to create something of a mission statement for this blog, and for my work in general. I have now been writing solely on Weinberg for the last two years, and been enjoying his music for little over four years. Before then, I was unaware. I draw the reader to an important question, both for new listeners, and for critics of Weinberg's music:

"Why Weinberg?"
I hope to give an introduction and a defence for Weinberg's music. I absolutely welcome any conversation and comments, so do please get in contact with your thoughts. 

My own reasons
As listeners, we are drawn to particular styles. It's only natural for us to enjoy music that is stylistically similar to that which we already enjoy. But when we approach the wide-reaching genre of 'Classical Music' for the first time, this may be daunting. Some of us are lucky enough to be raised in an atmosphere of listening and performing, working through a wide range of repertoire. Others come to listen later in life. Each listener shares one thing in common, however. A belief instilled that there is a pinnacle, a pantheon of greatness that is untouched, sealed and even sacred.
    I don't wish to get bogged down in arguments around the musical 'canon'. My own gut reactions include terms like 'Elitist' and 'Exclusive' – such debates are well-worn in musicology. One thing is certain. Individual composers can and do get left behind. Music that is perhaps mediocre at best is bizarrely preserved, while pieces that were never given the attention they deserve are forgotten.  Great music goes unheard, and great artists are lost forever. Such an issue is fundamental to our ways of thinking about Classical music, and revealing for how to challenge such notions in the future. There are a huge number of people fighting for the causes of a vast number of such 'under-appreciated' composers. And I rooted for Weinberg. Here's why I think you should too.

As a performer, and as a listener, I have a wide range of tastes. Outside of Art music, I heartily enjoy classic rock and English folk music. My favourite composers include Bach, Steve Reich and Stockhausen. My own listening in Art music has trended towards music of the Twentieth Century. No special reason, I just found myself drawn towards the comparatively exciting and daring sounds. As a result, I adore the music of Ives, Berg, Gershwin, Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Prokofiev, Copland, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage, Schoenberg, Reich, Lutosławski, Martinů and a host of others. All this in addition to my loves from the pre-Twentieth-Century era. So why was I drawn to Weinberg in particular?

I was attracted by the similarity to several of my favourite composers. Weinberg's music frequently displays its influences in great clarity, making it readily accessible for lovers of Shostakovich and Bartók. There's also plenty to satisfy fans of Prokofiev, Britten and Berg. Even touches of Debussy and Zemlinsky. See my previous writing on works to introduce listeners to the wide world of Weinberg's music: 'Weinberg for beginners' (also contains a brief biography)

Weinberg and Shostakovich.

And this takes us to the first criticism to defend against. Critics have singled out Weinberg's clear influences as a sign of weakness or unoriginality. I have sought to dismiss these claims in several ways. Firstly, Weinberg was writing in the aggressive climate of the USSR Composer's Union, an organisation which imposed certain expectation upon artists. Tasked with producing socially useful art, composers were encouraged to write towards a standard of music exemplified by approved works. So if Weinberg's music is sometimes strikingly similar in sound, this can be excused as a result of the requirement for it to sound as such.
   The case for defence is even greater with the similarity to Shostakovich's music. I have already written about the two composer's great friendship and interest in each other's works. An upcoming paper that I am working on seeks to set out mutual influence between the pair, often originating from Weinberg as opposed to Shostakovich. See my previous post, 'Weinberg and Influence'.

Another query to defend – "Why should I listen to Weinberg?" or "What makes this music so special?". I defend this quite simply: this music is frequently quite beautiful. It represents a continuation of a tradition long-thought to have abruptly stopped with the death of Shostakovich. This can be summed up as an observation of traditional means and forms, while seeking to express present-day anxieties with a great focus on melodic expansiveness. (That might seem overly complicated - just listen to some of the youtube clips in my above posts, and my meaning should become apparent). Instead of some kind of imitation of other great masters, Weinberg's music fights its own corner in a manner that demands attention. His opera 'The Passenger' is a demanding work, attracting audiences from all around the world. See this post on 'The Passenger', with clips.
   His opera 'The Idiot' has been enjoying sell-out audiences since its Western premiere in Mannheim earlier this year. Weinberg's music is undergoing an undeniable renewal, with more and more releases and performances lined up.

In my own work, I hope to have several papers published shortly, and I will continue speaking at conferences, introducing and exalting the music of Weinberg. Over the short time that I have been writing on his music, I have borne witness to a change in opinion. The question that people have been asking has changed. Originally, it started with "Why Weinberg?". I hope that this blog has gone some way to address that. Now, the question has reversed to "Why haven't we heard this before?". With this change of attitude, I feel I do not have to apologise for writing on an obscure composer. Instead, I readily enjoy hearing new reactions to this music. They encourage me that it is music worth fighting for.

Weinberg's Clarinet Sonata, Op. 28.