Tuesday 27 May 2014

'The greatest composer you've (probably) never heard of'

The popular BBC Radio 3 programme 'Composer of the week', presented by Donald Macleod, will be focusing entirely on Weinberg next week (starting 02/06/14). Weinberg was chosen by an open listener poll, with audiences invited to suggest their favourite 'obscure' composer. Apparently, Weinberg's name came out on top, leading to the week's broadcasts title of 'The greatest composer you've (probably) never heard of'. This will see five hour-length episodes, dedicated to Weinberg's life and works, featuring the broadcaster and Weinberg-enthusiast, Martin Anderson. More from the BBC's website:

'Over the past seven decades, Composer of the Week has delved into just about every major composer in classical music, and plenty of less well-known ones too. As the programme reached its 70th birthday last year, Donald Macleod challenged listeners to come up with the name of a deserving composer who had never previously been featured. Suggestions flooded in, over four-and-a-half-thousand of them, and of these, more than 20 made the case for an obscure Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Weinberg's music is well represented on CD, and as Donald heard more and more of it, his astonishment that he hadn't come across it before grew commensurately. So all this week, Donald Macleod explores the life and work of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, in the company of writer, broadcaster and champion of unjustly neglected composers, Martin Anderson.'

Find a link to the first page on the BBC website here. All five episodes of the series will be available to listen again on the BBC iPlayer website.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Raskatov on Weinberg

An interview has been published online, with Gavin Dixon talking to acclaimed Russian composer Alexander Raskatov (who, as you may know, was a close friend to Weinberg in his later years). Over the course of their conversation, they discuss Raskatov's recent works programmed at the Drogheda Festival. Of particular interest to readers of this blog, they begin to discuss Raskatov's work Monk's Music, which is dedicated to Weinberg. Raskatov recalls his close friendship with Weinberg, and then begins a poignant recollection of Weinberg's final years.

(From the website www.seenandheard-international.com, link below).

[Raskatov:] We were friends. When I was young, from around 1980, I often visited Weinberg. He invited me. He played me his music, I played him mine. We talked a lot. It was a fantastic time, and I thought it would never end. He played an important role because he always supported my music in all the Moscow institutions, the Union of Composers, the Ministry of Culture and so on. He was old school, full of old traditions. He had played four hands with Shostakovich, and he told me many things about his friendship with Shostakovich. But he was an extremely modest man. I came to him with my early Viola Concerto, which I had dedicated to him – I’d written the dedication in very grand, self-important language; I was young. I played it for him and he was very touched. He said: ‘you know Sasha this is the third composition which is dedicated to me’ I asked what the first two were, he said: ‘the Tenth Quartet of Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] and then the Cello Sonata of Boris Tchaikovsky; and now you are the third one.’ Anyway, during the 80s we met dozens of times. I helped him to organise the recording of his opera Portrait. We always had a lot of things to discuss.
[GD:] Listening to Raskatov talk about Weinberg’s final years, it’s clear his neglect was keenly felt.
[Raskatov:] When I left Russia, my departure was probably provoked by his illness. In 1993 I came to his house. He was very, very ill – he was dying really in poverty. He wasn’t able to buy important medicines for his treatment. It all cost money, and our Union of Composers, our government was unable to help him. I spoke to Elena Vassilieva about this composer who was so ill, and she sent some money. She told me to just give it, from one French singer to a composer, it might help a little bit. And I came to him and I told him I had some money for him. And he asked: ‘Sasha, is it your money?’ I said: ‘No, it is not mine, just take it.’ And he cried. When I saw this I thought, if this composer, who wrote so many symphonies, quartets, and operas, is in such a helpless situation, and the country cannot do anything for him, what can there be here for us younger composers? So it was something very painful that I felt. He never knew it, but that was a turning point for me. It showed me the real situation of music in the 1990s. I left and soon after he died. I received a letter from his wife. I regret very much that I left without saying adieu. And I felt that I was obliged to somehow commemorate his existence, to dedicate something to him. And as he was a great master of string quartets I decided this genre would be the best for his memory.
Read the full interview at the following link: Gavin Dixon on seenandheard-international.com

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Review: Vladimir Lande, Andrew Balio, St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir - Trumpet Concerto and Symphony No. 18

Naxos: 2014, Vladimir Lande (Conductor), Andrew Balio (Trumpet), St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra. Liner notes - Richard Whitehouse.

Naxos continue their admirable effort in releasing Weinberg's symphonies, with the Eighteenth, Op. 138, the second of the trilogy 'On the Threshold of War'. Also included is the ever-popular Trumpet Concerto, Op. 94, with Andrew Balio as soloist. Considering that the same ensemble's previous release of Weinberg's Twelfth Symphony was less than a success (see my review here), this latest CD goes some way to win back their reputation as interpreters of Weinberg's symphonic works.

Trumpet Concerto, Op. 94
I. Etudes
II. Episodes
III. Fanfares

Weinberg's trumpet concerto was dedicated to Soviet trumpeter Timofei Dokshitser, who premiered the work with Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968. It's sense of playfulness and energy have both contributed to its enduring appeal to soloists and audiences alike (indeed, it has become a staple of Russian trumpet exams). With several commercial recordings available, this new reading provides a fresh contribution, with Andrew Balio giving an admirable performance in the cheeky solo part. 
   The opening scalic passages of the 'Etudes' movement almost sound like defying raspberries blown in the face of the orchestra, establishing the central dialogue of the concerto - the joke-like trumpet soloist versus the more austere voice of the orchestra (a dialogue perhaps familiar from Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto). The final movement of the concerto is particularly memorable, with its quotations from Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, providing a collage of notable Trumpet passages. The unity of the work inspired Shostakovich to dub the Trumpet Concerto, with only a hint of over-exaggeration, 'a Symphony for trumpet and orchestra'. 
   The recording here is warm, with a generally good balance. Any untidyness to be found in the strings is immediately offset by the charisma of Balio as soloist, if anything only emphasising the 'cheeky' side to the trumpet part.

Symphony No. 18, Op. 138, 'War - there is no word more cruel'
I. Adagio - Allegro
II. 'He was buried in the Earth'
III. 'My dear little berry, you do not know the pain that is in my heart'
IV. 'War - there is no word more cruel'
Weinberg's symphonic trilogy 'On the Threshold of War' was one of the great achievements of his later career, though its presence on the concert platform has been notably absent since its premiere performances. With the efforts of the Neos label and now Naxos, the whole trilogy is widely available, and a remarkable work it proves to be. 
   Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra have released Weinberg's Nineteenth Symphony, the concluding part of the trilogy. My review of that purely orchestral work can be found here. In this excellent reading, Lande proves that the Eighteenth is really the key central section of this great work. Any of the unstability present in their previous reading of the Twelfth symphony is thankfully absent. 
   The warm opening of the first movement sets the tone - remarkably warm and moving, becoming all the more powerful with the brass entry. This opening movement acts as an overture to the work, with the really moving passages present in the choral work, with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir giving an excellent performance - try the opening of the second movement, 'He was buried in the Earth' and see what I mean. The third movement is the most moving for me, 'My dear little berry', sung by female voices. The final movement gives a solemn epilogue, to words by Aleksandr Tvardovsky:
War - there is no word more cruel. 
War - there is no word more sad. 
War - there is no word more holy. 
In the sorrow and the glory of these years. 
There is and there could not be 
Any other word on our lips.
This recording gives an excellent reading of Weinberg's ultimately optimistic message - that the pains of war do nothing to extinguish the beauty of human spirit. An excellent addition here (compared to the Naxos recording of Weinberg's Eighth Symphony) is the inclusion of translations for the sung texts. Combined with Mr. Whitehouse's liner notes, a good background is given to fully understand the work. In my opinion, the quality of this release balances out any quibbles to be found in their previous Weinberg disc. Heartily recommended, principally for the programming of Weinberg's Eighteenth.

Recommended other listening:
There are several excellent recordings of the Trumpet Concerto widely available, so I will only link to one available to listen to on youtube:

This is the Neos label release, to be found to buy on Amazon - link.

For another recording of the Eighteenth Symphony, there is the Olympia recording with the forces that premiered the work, the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting (though this CD is now something of a collector's item).

Otherwise, the following two releases complete the symphonic trilogy and are available for purchase:

Neos - Weinberg Symphony No. 17, Weiner Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev - Link

Naxos (Lande & St. Petersburg State Orchestra) - Symphony No. 19 - Link