In 2014 ECM New Series released a two-CD album of performances by Kremerata Baltica and its Artistic Director Gidon Kremer that probably introduced many listeners to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. The first disc presented three of the composer’s chamber music compositions, while the second offered a concertino (Opus 42) for violin and string orchestra and the Opus 98 (tenth) symphony, also scored for string orchestra. Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919 but fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazis began their invasion of Poland. He eventually came to Moscow in 1943 at the suggestion of Dmitri Shostakovich. At that time Shostakovich knew Weinberg only by his compositions, but the two subsequently became close friends.
This coming Friday ECM New Series will release a second Kremerata Baltica album, again with two CDs, that will continue Kremer’s project of recording Weinberg’s music. If the first release served as a “sampler” of Weinberg’s works, the new recording is more focused. It surveys the four chamber symphonies that Weinberg composed during the last decade of his life, between 1986 and 1992. (Weinberg died in 1996.) Indeed, the fourth chamber symphony (Opus 153) was his last completed composition. Because these four pieces fill about one and one-half CDs, the release also includes a chamber orchestra arrangement of Weinberg’s Opus 18 piano quintet, composed in 1944. This new recording also constitutes a double anniversary celebration, since Kremer will turn 70 on February 27 and Kremerata Baltica will turn twenty, since it was founded in 1997.
The inclusion of the arrangement of Opus 18 is consistent with the rest of the album, because all four of the chamber symphonies involve reworking earlier material. Thus, the first three chamber symphonies took, as points of departure, the second, third, and fifth string quartets. Note that phrase “points of departure.” Six of Shostakovich’s string quartets were rearranged as “chamber-symphonies.” Five of them were by Rudolf Barshai for his Moscow Chamber Orchestra, one with Shostakovich’s authorization. Weinberg, on the other hand, revisited thematic materials, exploring new ways to work with them; and, in the final chamber symphony, he turned to later works other than the string quartets to engage the same sort of process. Those interested in exploring Weinberg’s rethinking process may wish to consult the album of his complete string quartets recorded by Quatuor Danel. Opus 18, on the other hand, is the object of reworking, just as the Shostakovich quartets were such objects for Barshai.
It is worth noting that the chamber music of Shostakovich can also be taken as providing orientation for all five selections on this album. There are many ways in which Weinberg’s rhetorical stances parallel those of Shostakovich. However, there are also rhetorical moves that are distinctly Weinberg’s own, particularly when they involve percussion instruments. Thus the string ensemble for the second chamber symphony is augmented by a timpani part, while the final chamber symphony adds parts for both clarinet and triangle. The triangle is struck only four times in the final movement, but the rhetorical impact is overwhelming. (Shostakovich also knew how the use the triangle strategically; but, in this particular chamber symphony, Weinberg is definitely on his own turf.)
Similarly, the Opus 18 piano quintet was composed in 1944, after Weinberg’s move to Moscow; but there is a clear sense that he was aware of the piano quintet Shostakovich had written in 1940. On the other hand the arrangement on this album has much more to do with Weinberg than with Shostakovich. For one thing it was written by Kremer working with Andrei Pushkarev, the percussionist performing on the recordings of the second and fourth chamber symphonies. In addition there are solo parts for four Kremerata Baltica section leaders, violinists Džeraldas Bidva and Dainius Puodžiukas, violist Santa Vižine, and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė. As a result pianist Yulianna Avdeeva finds herself playing with both a string quartet and a chamber orchestra (as well as Pushkarev on percussion).
From a personal point of view, I must say that I took to this new release more readily than I did the first one. However, that may just have to do with the fact that I have familiarized myself with a fair amount of Weinberg’s work since 2014. On the other hand it is probably also the case that connections to Shostakovich (not to mention an even broader legacy of chamber music for piano and strings) facilitate orienting to those structural and rhetorical elements that are distinctively Weinberg’s own. Most important is that a revived interest in Weinberg still seems to be on an ascent, and this new recording does much to further boost the elevation of that repertoire.