Monday 28 January 2019

Photos from Manchester Weinberg Quartet Cycle and Conference

I'm still reeling from the incredible 'Mieczysław Weinberg: East meets West' conference at my Alma mater, the University of Manchester. The conference was organised by the ever-wonderful David Fanning and Michelle Assay, who pulled everything together with their indefatigable efforts. I promise a full write-up 'report' of the proceedings, but for now, here's a selection of photos from the four days (my own, and from other delegates and audience-members).

Full programme of the Quatuor Danel concerts.
Yours truly, leading a workshop-seminar with the Quatuor Danel on my reconstruction of Weinberg's First Quartet (photo credit: Richard Pleak)
An incredible 'surprise guest' at the conference: Gidon Kremer (photo credit: Richard Pleak)

Kremer performed and then gave a talk (before flying out straight afterwards!) (photo credit: Richard Pleak)

The academic conference included a Skype Q&A session with Victoria Bishops, Weinberg's first daughter.

Roberto Carrillo-Garcia gave a phenomenal performance of Weinberg's Sonata for Double-Bass in one of the afternoon concerts (photo credit: Richard Pleak)

The conference delegates were a friendly group, seen here in a large dinner in between sessions. 

The incredible Quatuor Danel (photo credit: Richard Pleak)

A wonderful group photo with the Danels, audience members and conference delegates, who all went together on the amazing journey through Weinberg's complete quartets (photo credit: The Symphonist, twitter handle: @deeplyclassical).  

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Weinberg Piano Quintet, Op. 18, programme note

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
Piano Quintet, Op. 18 (1944)
I – Moderato con moto
II – Andante
III  – Presto
IV – Largo
V – Allegro agitato

Weinberg wrote his Piano Quintet between August and October 1944, at the age of 24. Barely a year after settling in Moscow, following his double escape from Nazi invasion (Warsaw to Minsk in September 1939 and Minsk to Tashkent in June 1941), he already had a blossoming reputation in the musical community of the Soviet capital. His Quintet is part of a larger group of chamber pieces written at prolific speed during the war years. Despite his youth, it is a formidable work, cast in five movements, similar to Shostakovich’s celebrated Piano Quintet of 1940. But whereas Shostakovich’s work is often contemplative in character, Weinberg’s Quintet is more extrovert as a whole. It is tempting to link the work’s serious tone to the war itself - Weinberg had left his family behind when he fled his native Poland – but unlike some of his later pieces, there are no concrete clues to this effect, such as quotations or self-quotations from songs. The piano part is particularly demanding, with several extended solos. A remarkable recording exists of the composer performing the piece with the Borodin Quartet – testament to his pianistic proficiency.
            The work’s opening phrase is immediately striking, with an austere tone that sets the mood for the first movement and the whole piece. The piano is pitted against the strings, with the quartet providing punctuating gestures to the piano’s weightier thematic statements. The dotted rhythm of the second theme allows the strings to dominate, but only briefly before the opening theme returns in a thunderous restatement.
            The second movement alternates a sinuous theme in the muted strings with a hectic solo from the piano. The latter’s triplet figurations rapidly expand to the whole ensemble, before reducing to a skeletal macabre texture, with the strings playing several eerie passages with the back of the bow – col legno.
            The third movement is a Presto that opens with muted flurries in the strings, soon joined by octaves high in the piano that create a feeling of tense expectation. This mood is shattered by a series of strenuous scales and trills, before a central dance section in which elements reminiscent of Klezmer and even a brief Chopin-esque passage for solo piano combine to emphasise the ‘cabaret’ feel already latent in the previous movement.
            The long-drawn Largo rapidly darkens the mood, providing a sobering contrast to the previous manic jubilation; its character is stark, verging on melancholic. A line of implacable octaves sets the tone. The first violin delivers a mournful solo, before a strident burst of major tonality in the piano. Energy accumulates, before a heart-rending flurry of passion. The quasi-recitative theme once again moves to the solo piano, before a morendo close. A contemporary reviewer described this movement as ‘disturbingly lyrical and deeply meditative’.
            With such contrasts already encountered, the final movement has several questions to address, which is does with a succession of strongly characterised themes. It opens with strident, almost machine-like pulsations, with aggressive interjections from the piano. Syncopated rhythms abound. The second theme is unexpected: firmly in the major, it presents a folk-like dance, playful and mischievous, like an east-European take on an Irish jig. The piano contrasts with a jazz-like canon, before the first violin reintroduces the opening movement’s first theme, taking up a thread that serves to unite the whole work. This is soon combined with the folk-like melody in an unsettling blend. The juxtaposition builds to become more jarring before a fiery restatement of the first movement theme in full. Energy dissipates for the work’s close, softly concluding in a troublingly inconclusive F major.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Shostakovich and Weinberg

That Shostakovich and Weinberg were good friends is well-known. They compared their works-in-progress together, and met regularly, as well as socialising almost every day. What is less well-known, however, is the extent to which Shostakovich supported Weinberg during his most dire time of need. 

The following is from an article by Nataliya Vovsi-Mikhoels, Weinberg's first wife, on his relationship with Shostakovich, and the events of 1953: 

Although Weinberg was not a pupil of Shostakovich's, Dmitri Dmitriyevich always showed great interest in his work. From the very beginning of their acquaintance, they established a law whereby each played his compositions for the other. I remember one day Weinberg telling me of a dream he had had in which Shostakovich invited him to listen to a new work where he heard themes from many of his previous compositions. As he was telling me this story, the telephone rang; it was Shostakovich, who indeed was inviting him to come and listen to a work he had just completed. It turned out to be the Eighth Quartet, which Dmitri Dmitriyevich considered to be his musical autobiography. Weinberg returned home shaken to the very core by the music, and by his prophetic dream.  

In February 1953, Weinberg was arrested. Stalin was still alive. To be arrested in those times meant departure for ever. The families of those arrested were ostracized. I rushed between the Moscow prisons, the Lyubyanka and the Butyrka, and didn't know whom to approach.  

A few days after his arrest, a great friend of ours range me and suggested we meet. While we paced the dark and narrow Moscow lanes, he told me that Shostakovich was writing a letter to Beriya and needed me to come and help him edit it. It was sheer lunacy to go to Shostakovich in my situation! But I went and read the letter in which he, Shostakovich, vouched that Weinberg was an honest citizen and a most talented young composers, whose chief interest in life was music. I understood how dangerous it was for Shostakovich to vouch for an enemy of the people, a Jew, and furthermore, Mikhoels' son-in-law... I expressed these emotions as best as I could to Dmitri Dmitriyevich, but he, shy of being thanked, just continued to repeat, 'Don't worry, don't worry, they won't do anything to me'.  

Apart from this letter, his wife Nina Vasilyevna suggested that I should write a statement, giving her power of attorney, thereby allowing her to take our things and sell them to support my seven-year-old daughter Vitosha [Victoria], when they came to get me and my sister... In fact, as it transpired later, she had decided that they would look after Vitosha.  

But all this was not be. On 5 March Stalin died. A month later, my father was rehabilitated in the press. Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released.  

And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: 'Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metek'. Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasileyna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, 'Now I should burn it over the candles'. After the destruction of the 'document', we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as clam, and even merry, as he was that evening. 

Quoted from Elizabeth Wilson (ed), Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and faber, 2006) 263-264. 

Shostakovich photograph from wikipedia commons. 

Saturday 12 January 2019

Weinberg's date of birth

On which day of the year should we be celebrating Weinberg's centenary in 2019?

That might seem like a straight-forward question, but the answer is complex. The date that Weinberg and his family celebrated his birthday was 8 December, and this is the date on most of the surviving documents relating to the composer.

His date of birth can be brought into question, however, since his original birth certificate was lost during the destruction of Warsaw in the Second World War. He went to great lengths to receive a replacement in the 1980s, which also officially corrected his name to 'Mieczysław' (it had been changed to 'Moisey' by a border guard in 1939, but that's a separate story). This later document also gives the date of birth as '8 December 1919'.

Recent research has thrown doubt on this, however. Prof. Danuta Gwizdalanka, respected Polish musicologist and biographer of Weinberg, went through the archives of the Warsaw Conservatoire, where Weinberg was a student in the years 1931-1939.

Located there, Gwizdalanka found two documents that bring Weinberg's date of birth into question: his conservatoire application, and a birth certificate, seemingly copied from the original. Both documents list his date of birth as '12 January 1919', a sizeable difference from the acknowledged date (both also use the original Polish spelling for his surname, 'Wajnberg').

Images taken from website.

The birth certificate states: 'This birth certificate has been transcribed into the Jewish Faith Metrical Books at the 7th police station of Warsaw on the 17th of January 1919 under no. 28'. The duplicate document was issued in May 1936. 

The application for entry to the Conservatoire is dated November 1931. 

Weinberg's second daughter has confirmed several times that Weinberg celebrated his birthday on 8 December. He was given a Polish medal for services to culture on his 75th birthday, and a small ceremony took place on 8 December 1994. What's more, the later Moscow birth certificate, dated 1981, also gives the 8 December date.

So why the discrepancy?

Aside from these two documents, all other evidence points to the 8 December date. The 12 January version can perhaps be explained when we examine the date that the application was submitted to the conservatoire. In November 1931, Weinberg would have been eleven years old, according to his acknowledged date of birth. The minimum age of entrants to the Warsaw Conservatoire was, however, twelve. The 12 January date conveniently raises Weinberg's age to be sufficient for entry.

If this is the case, Weinberg would hardly be unique in this respect (there are several other composers who misled about their age to gain conservatoire entry). The 1936 duplicate of the birth certificate is more difficult to account for, though it may have been a consequence of new laws on work permits for Jews in Warsaw 1936, which may have extended to continuing study at the conservatoire.

With that said, there is an outside chance that these two documents could be proof that we ought to be celebrating Weinberg's birth much earlier in the year. Or perhaps the discrepancy lends weight to the idea of celebrating his birth all year long (or, at the very least, between 12 January and 8 December)?

Or, perhaps, today should be the date for 'Happy Birthday, Weinberg'?

Further information (and images taken) from Danuta Gwizdalanka, 'Unknown Facts from Mieczysław Wajnberg's biography' -

Thursday 10 January 2019

Abeliovich on Warsaw and Weinberg

Weinberg 100: 3

Lev Abeliovich (1912-1985) was born in Vilnius, and studied at the Warsaw Conservatoire from 1935, specialising in composition under Kazimierz Sikorski. As a result, he was one of Weinberg's classmates, and the two were close friends. Like Weinberg, Abeliovich enrolled at the Minsk Conservatoire during the war, though he remained there for the rest of his life (while Weinberg went on to Tashkent and then Moscow; the rest is history). Abeliovich was one of very few regular contacts with Weinberg's Polish childhood and education later in his later life, as his family have confirmed.
            Abeliovich recalled the following about their shared experiences in Warsaw:

Warsaw in the 1930s was a major music centre in Poland. The famous performers worked and performed there: the pianists (the Polish J. Hofmann, the German A. Schnabel), the famous Polish conductor G. Fitelberg, through whose interpretation I got acquainted with the works of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Szymanowski, Prokofiev. The centre of musical culture was the Warsaw Conservatoire. There were outstanding performers and composers teaching there - A. Żuravlev, K. Sikorski, Z. Dżevetski, K. Szymanowski. Among the like-minded people who in many respects shared my destiny, were fellow students in the Warsaw and later Belorussian Conservatoires H. Vagner and E. Tyrmand. But the best, and perhaps the only close friend was Mieczysław Weinberg.

From: Svetlana Kovshik and Inessa Dvuzhil’naya, ‘Interv’yu, kotorogo ne bïlo’ [‘The interview that didn’t take place’], Mishpokha, 29; available online at: