Mieczysław Weinberg (Or Moishe Vainberg) was one of the most talented of 20th century composers, his reputation constantly increasing each year as his music has the power and brilliance of such masters as Shostakovich (Weinberg's close friend and biggest advocate) and Prokofiev. How fortunate we are that recordings have been popping up like springtime flowers in the past decade! The reason for the neglect of his music is largely political, for Weinberg, as a bourgeois Jew, suffered under both Nazism and Socialism. It is only since the barriers between the Soviet Union and the West have relaxed, that scholars worldwide are realizing the importance of Weinberg’s legacy.
Shostakovich described Weinberg as "one of the most outstanding composers of the present day". That someone who endured the horrors of Nazi genocide, World War II and the Gulag managed to compose at all is extraordinary, let alone produce an oeuvre of such size and quality (22 Symphonies, four Chamber Symphonies, two Sinfoniettas, seventeen String Quartets and numerous other pieces of chamber music as well as seven operas). Weinberg was the only one of his family to escape Nazi atrocities during the war. His father-in-law was assassinated by the Soviet authorities. Weinberg himself was detained and came close to death in 1953 when he was falsely accused of plotting to set up a Jewish republic in the Crimea.
Weinberg’s music shares stylistic traits with that of Shostakovich which is unsurprising, considering the closeness of their relationship. They met in 1943 when, as a refugee in the Soviet Union, Weinberg sent him a score of his First Symphony. The older composer was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to be officially invited to Moscow. Weinberg felt as if he had been ‘born anew’ through their encounter. It was not a question of his taking lessons, rather, he had found someone in whom he could confide. The two composers would play each of their newly completed works to one another-Weinberg was the primary source of the Jewish musical influences in Shostakovich’s music. Besides Shostakovich, other palpable influences on Weinberg’s music were Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Mahler. More of a romantic than his mentor, his music is notable for the lyrical beauty of its melodies and its extraordinarily fine thematic development.
The Symphony No. 5 Op. 76 emerged in 1962 influenced by the first performance, after a long suppression, of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. It is dedicated to Kondrashin, a lifelong Weinberg champion, who conducted the premiere of the Shostakovich work and recorded it for Melodiya shortly afterwards. Alistair Wightman comments, in his notes, on the similarities between the music of Shostakovich and Weinberg. The four movement Symphony is indeed bleak, has its moments of soured triumph threaded through with disillusion. There is a beleaguered comfort about the fine tenderly plangent adagio sostenuto which is I think more powerful than anything in Shostakovich 4. It bridges across to the tense adagios of the Roy Harris symphonies of the 1930s and 1940s. Tension bursts the bonds at 9.01 when the tender theme thrusts forward with all the torque of a supercharged spiritual; impressive by anyone's reckoning. The impishly playful flute and then other solo wind instruments seem to dance in macabre delicacy in the shortish allegro. This soon takes on a distinctly Shostakovichian edginess and dazzle before restively petering out into silence from which emerges a pastoral attacca final.
The First Sinfonietta dates from 1948, shortly after Shostakovich encouraged Weinberg to come to Moscow. Half the length of the symphony, it is more simply constructed and less emotionally complex. In this work, the Jewish elements are especially pronounced. The final movement, for example, is clearly based on klezmer music. Initially, the Sinfonietta's Jewish elements earned it praise from the commissars- this was music for the people-but it wouldn't be long before they were used against the composer, as anti-Semitism became more prominent in the Soviet Union. (Btw-is it my eyes or is the text smaller in this paragraph? Blogger is messing with me I do think..)