Sunday 29 December 2013

Review: Nowicka and Antoniewicz, 'Works for Violin and Piano'

As a christmas present to myself, I ordered this album at the end of the university term a week or so ago. Having had a few days to listen through and digest it, I can assert that it is a fine album, one which should have a welcome place on any chamber music-enthusiast's shelf.

The works featured are as follows: 

Concertino for Violin and Piano, Op. 42 (i.e. piano reduction from the orchestral part)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano, Op. 46
Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes for Violin and Piano, Op. 47/3

All three are closely related - having been written in the years 1948/9, a period of upheaval in Soviet music, Weinberg included. New clamp-downs were placed by the Soviet Composer's Union, and several of Weinberg's works were black-listed. Despite this, Weinberg continued to write with a focus on chamber music and folk-tinged works, including the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, featured here. 

It is certainly an attractive CD package, featuring many photos of Weinberg, and images taken from the manuscripts of the works themselves. Nowicka provides liner notes, in English translation by Dorothy Holland, which leave a little to be desired, proof-reading errors aside. There are several factual errors, and a large focus on Weinberg's significance for Poland; in addition to this, I would have liked to have seen more details about the recorded works themselves. Not that these notes diminish the quality of the release - the booklet more than makes up for it with several excellent photos of Weinberg from across his career. The album's media patrons are TVP Kultura, Radio Merkury, Twoja Muza magazine and The RecArt label is an entirely independent label.

The playing is excellent throughout, providing interesting contrasts to the existing recorded repertoire. This is the first recording of the concertino with piano accompaniment (to the best of my knowledge), and Antoniewicz takes on the role of accompanist admirably. Indeed, the quality of this performance is grounds to argue for the quality of this work as a recital piece alongside the orchestral platform.

The Sonatina is an intriguing work, having waited more than five years until its first performance. It is closely related to another Weinberg Sonatina, the Op. 49 for piano, as well as the Fourth Sonata for Piano, Op. 56. Nowicka's and Antoniewicz's performance is thoroughly convincing, with an added warmth lacking from other recordings. 

As for recording on the disc, it is generally excellent. The quality tends towards warm and spacious, though the piano is occasionally engulfing, almost stifling for the soloist.

The final work, the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, will be familiar to many - one of Weinberg's most famous works, and a concert favourite of Oistrakh's. For the dance-like flurry that follows the introduction, Nowicka takes a tempo erring on the side of 'safe' - all the playing is solid and sure, but it lacks the excitement present on other recordings. 

Overall, an excellent disc, with many revealing and fresh interpretations. My highlight is the concertino with piano that opens the disc, a fine case for presenting this work in an intimate concert environment. The other works are given solid interpretations, with fresh and warm qualities, perhaps wanting for an edge of excitement but otherwise excellent. 

See the following link to the RecArt label's homepage, with previews for each of the works link.

--------Recommended further listening---------

Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thompson (Leader and Soloist) [Channel Classics]

- For the Concertino, an excellent recording by the ensemble that gave the European premiere. 

Yuri Klanits, Violin, Michael Csányi-Wills, Piano [Toccata Classics]

- For an exhilarating interpretation of the Moldavian Rhapsody. 

Friday 20 December 2013

And another upcoming release...

Just a quick note, to mention another upcoming release to add to your New Year's list.

Challenge Records have announced that Mr. Linus Roth is continuing his engagement with Weinberg's music with another disc to be released in January, pairing Weinberg's Violin Concerto, Op. 67, with Britten's youthful Violin Concerto, Op. 15. With the Deutsches Symphonie-orchester Berlin and Mikhel Cütson conducting.

To be released in January. Expect good things.

For more info, see the Challenge Records website here.

See my review of Roth's three-disc set of the complete works for Violin and Piano - review link.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

December update

Releases (both available and upcoming)

The last few months have brought a rich variety of Weinberg-related recordings (see my recent review posts). Here are two recordings that have caught my attention recently, both of which I am eagerly awaiting in the post:

The Pacifica Quartet, 'The Soviet Experience, Vol. IV', Cedille, 2CD-set. 

The Pacifica Quartet have been attracting numerous awards and column-inches for their excellent Shostakovich cycle, unique in pairing their releases with other Soviet quartets contemporaneous to the Shostakovich works featured. Of course, their third volume included Weinberg's Sixth Quartet in a masterful interpretation. This final disc features Schnittke's Third Quartet, perfect programming alongside Shostakovich's last three quartets. Several commentators have called for the group to record the remaining Schnittke quartets as a seperate project. Of course, I invite them to record as many Weinberg quartets as possible (and Myaskovsky, for that matter). Amazon link.

Ewelina Nowicka (violin), Milena Antonewicz (piano), 'Mieczysław Weinberg: Works for Violin and Piano', RecArt, Poland.

This album adds to the considerable amount of discs already released this year dedicated to Weinberg's works for violin. Works featured include the Sonatina, Op. 46, Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, and the Concertino, Op. 42, recorded for the first time in its arrangement for violin and piano. Available from amazon here and here. More info available from the RecArt website: link.


St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande, 'Symphony No. 12, Golden Key Suite No. 4'

Coming in January, the next installment of Naxos' hugely successful series of Weinberg's symphonies, this release featuring his twelfth, dedicated to Shostakovich. Paired alongside is the fourth suite from Weinberg's ballet The Golden Key, an extremely charming work to go with it. More info available here: link to Naxos page.

And, for the other upcoming release that I'd like mention, I have no CD cover photo, yet (UPDATE 19/12/13 - Yes I do, see above). Several websites have listed a new release by Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, to be released in January. Information is extremely scarce, but several sources suggest that it will be a 2CD set, dedicated to orchestral works by Weinberg. I expect very good things; I shall update as and when more information becomes available.



I have found a track-listing for the Kremer double-album, with a release moved back to February 2014. The works featured will be:

Disc 1
Sonata No. 3 for solo violin Op. 126
Trio for Strings, Op. 48
Sonatina for Violin and Piano, Op. 46

Disc 2
Concertino for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 42
Symphony No. 10, Op. 98

It is interesting to see a blend of chamber and ensemble music over the course of a set, but I'm sure Kremer and his Orchestra will not disappoint.

My own work

Progress with my PhD-work is chugging along nicely, with looming chapter deadlines. I will be speaking at the RMA Research Student's conference at Birmingham University in January 2014, on the topic of 'The Influence of Anxiety', speaking on various theories on the aesthetics of influence in music. 

I'm also delighted to announce that I have been invited to speak at an international conference held at Leeds University, 'Continuities and Ruptures: Artistic Responses to Jewish Migration, Internment and Exile in the Long Twentieth Century'. The title of my paper is 'Commemorating the Past: Weinberg’s Experience as a Jewish Migrant in the USSR', and I shall be speaking on Weinberg's experience as a Jewish-Polish migrant to the Soviet Union, and the reception that he enjoyed over the course of his life. 

I shall update this post with more news/releases as and when I am aware of them. Do check back to this blog for more album reviews, work-focus posts and details of my upcoming work.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Work focus: Fourth Symphony, Op. 61

Weinberg's path as a symphonist evolved relatively late in his career; by the time of his Fourth Symphony, 1961, he was over forty years old and had been a professional composer for more than twenty years. His preceding symphonies had shown something of a struggle to find a voice. The First Symphony, Op. 10, is a strong work, but it betrays a heavily academic approach. His Second Symphony, Op. 30, is more restrained, scored for string orchestra. The Third Symphony, Op. 45, shows an evolution, heading towards the trajectory of the Fourth, but still with some way to go. But with the Fourth Symphony, Weinberg established a powerful voice as a symphonist. The work is arresting, challenging, and unique, but also with charm.
   Work began on the work in 1957, with subsequent revisions. The manuscript dates completion to 20 June, 1961, and the symphony was premiered on 16 October of the same year, with Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (just a few weeks before the belated premiere of Shostakovich's own Fourth Symphony, performed by exactly the same forces). The piece is dedicated to Revol Bunin, a student of Shostakovich and a fellow composer. Bunin was a prolific composer and teacher, particularly active in scoring for films (Weinberg would go on to dedicate his Fifth Symphony to Kondrashin).

What other writers have said about the Fourth Symphony

S. Shlifstein, 1963 (foreword to orchestral score):
Weinberg’s name has of late been attracting the attention of the musical public. Profound themes, fresh and expressive lyrical melodies in the folk style, mastery of form, brilliant virtuosity and dynamism of orchestral writing – all this makes for high artistry of his creations. Technically impeccable, his works produce the impression of great ease.
    This is particularly true of his Fourth Symphony: for all its complexity (the work abounds in polyphonic devices, unexpected tonal shifts and its harmonic idiom is quite modern), the symphony seems light, transparent and deceptively simple. But there is nothing contradictory in this: simplicity is the summit of art. Every artist, however, has his own idea of simplicity; in the words of Vsevolod Meierhold, ‘There is no general and universal simplicity, just as there is no “golden mean” in art. An artist must strive for his own kind of simplicity which will be quite unlike the simplicity of his colleagues. In art, simplicity is the result and not the starting point’. So when we speak of ‘simplicity’ in Weinberg’s music we mean just this. Like other works written in later years, his Fourth Symphony reflects the composer’s ceaseless searchings for a style and simplicity of his own. And not merely searchings but also achievements. 

Gregor Tassie, Kirill Kondrashin: His Life and Music, (2011):
Among the Soviet composers whose works were taken up by Kondrashin
during this period was the Polish-born composer Moisei Vainberg. Kondrashin gave the world premieres of several of his symphonies. All of these were immediately set down by Melodiya, including a fine setting of the Violin Concerto with Leonid Kogan as soloist. Vainberg was fortunate in being performed by the most gifted musicians in the USSR: “Regarding the role of the performer, certainly if one knows that he is waiting for your music, it does help motivate one. I have written works commissioned by L. Kogan, D. Oistrakh, M. Rostropovich, and D. Shafran. If I didn’t enjoy the friendship of
R. Barshay, there probably would not have appeared my string symphonies. I worked on the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies aware that they would be performed by K. Kondrashin. I thank fate that during my career I have met genuinely wonderful interpreters.” (K. P. Kondrashin, “K 60-letiy K. P. Kondrashina,” 51).
 Susan J. Regan, 1971 (notes to Melodiya release):
First performed in October 1961, Vainberg's Fourth Symphony resembles the Violin Concerto in overall construction, with two vital and forceful outer movements, a lighter second movement and a more lyrical third movement. The symphony also reveals certain characteristics of Vainberg's style: polyphonic writing, particularly in development sections, a fondness for the clarinet which is given major themes in the first three movements, and for percussive writing in the brass (especially trumpets), pizzicato accompaniments to give a feeling of moment, and a penchant for dance and march rhythms. The harmony is alternately rich and dissonant, the melody alternately smooth and angular.

The Music

For the interest of readers, the score for the Fourth Symphony is conveniently available on the ISSUU website, read-only, available here. The youtube videos are from both the Kondrashin and Chmura recordings.

First movement - Allegro
 The symphony opens with a striking unison string line, clunky and stark, recurring throughout the movement. In counterpoint to this rhythmically shifting line, a brass fanfare. Pinpointed against this is a woodwind answer, which will go later to herald the second theme of the movement, first heard in the clarinet. A restatement of the opening follows, with complex development and both themes alternating between the violins and horn, all underpinned by the unison string line. The central development introduces a march-like theme before a recapitulation of both themes. The timpani signal a shortened version of the opening, leading a hurried close.

Second movement - Allegretto
The clarinet takes centre-stage in this slower movement, leading the first theme to pizzicato accompaniment. This meandering and pastoral line moves to the strings, before a jaunty and militaristic second theme is heard in the trumpet, shifting to woodwind. Increasing in drama, the two themes are combined before a return to the opening material.

Third movement - Adagio - Andantino
This Mahlerian slow movement is perhaps the most striking passage of the whole work, showing Weinberg's lyrical mood in symphonic form for the first time. A solo horn opens the movement with a melancholic recitative, answered by the cellos with the first theme. The clarinet takes prominence again, with the second theme, ascending passionately. The central section combines both themes and increases in intensity, building up to a crushing anti-climax before the restatement of the opening. This beautiful movement paints an exquisite picture for the listener.

Fourth movement - Vivace
The finale marks a return to the fast-paced polyphony of the opening movement, with several nods to the descending brass figure that began the work. Such energy is now condensed into a whirling sequence of folk-like dances, with a particular emphasis on Jewish-like themes (several commentators have pointed out a resemblance to the Belo-russyan song 'Perepyolochka', hidden beneath troikas and mazurkas). Many themes follow one after the other, showing off Weinberg's accomplished orchestration skills, with passages for xylophone and tambourine, and others for woodwind. They give way to a broad song-like theme in warm strings, before a headlong drive towards a flurry that concludes the symphony with a punch.

Recommended recordings
To the best of my knowledge, the reader has a choice between two recordings (one of them released and re-released in many different guises).

1. Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic (Melodiya)

This recording has become something of a collector's item on vinyl and on CD. It is available second hand on currently, and also available as a download from the Melodiya shop on iTunes.

2. Gabriel Chmura and the National Polish Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)

Widely available on CD and amazon download.

In my opinion, I side with the Kondrashin recording. Partly because of the biographical interest, as it features the forces that premiered the work, but also because it boasts a slightly warmer sound than the Chandos series on Weinberg's symphonies. If at all possible, try to source the Kondrashin on vinyl, paired with the Violin Concerto, Op. 67, performed flawlessly by Leonid Kogan.