Friday, March 31, 2017

Naxos (finally?) Releases its Album of Weinberg Violin-Piano Sonatas

Near the beginning of this month, Naxos released a two-CD album of the complete sonatas for violin and piano by Mieczysław Weinberg. Born in Warsaw on December 8, 1919, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union, escaping the Nazi advance, shortly after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, meaning that he spent his entire life as a “professional musician” inside the Soviet Union. I cite this fact as a parallel to the observation that both of the musicians on this album, violinist Grigory Kalinovsky and pianist Tatiana Goncharova, were born in Russia and now spend most of their time teaching and performing in the United States.

As a result, all of the selections on this album, six sonatas and one sonatina, were recorded in New York at Brown Recording. The reason for the parenthesis in the above headline is that all recordings took place between March and December of 2010. This seems like a rather long time for postproduction activities, particularly when one realizes that, in July of 2013, Challenge Classics released an album of 3 CDs covering all of the same music along with a Moldavian rhapsody (Opus 47, Number 3) and an unpublished set of three pieces, performed by violinist Linus Roth, accompanied at the piano by José Gallardo. In that collection both the second (Opus 15) and sixth (Opus 136) sonatas were premiere recordings. (This was followed by another Roth album that included the three solo violin sonatas, released last year, which also includes Dmitri Shostakovich’s three “Fantastic Dances” for solo violin.)

Weinberg was younger than Shostakovich by a little more than thirteen years, but the latter was consistently supportive of the former. This is more than a little ironic, since it had only been in 1937 that Shostakovich had redeemed himself from his first denunciation by Soviet authorities in response to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. On the other hand Shostakovich’s experience may have been sufficient to convince Weinberg of the virtue of keeping one’s head down as much as possible. Nevertheless, his discretion did not prevent him from being arrested for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in February of 1953. Shostakovich tried to intercede on Weinberg’s behalf; but it is likely that Weinberg’s release was a “fortuitous side effect” of the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5 of that same year.

Outside of Shostakovich, Weinberg does not appear to have had many champions. Nevertheless, he was remarkably prodigious, writing 22 symphonies, seventeen string quartets, 24 preludes for solo cello, and seven operas. When the authorities were watching him too closely, Weinberg sustained himself with prodigious activity in providing music for cinema and theater. In more recent times his music has been championed by Gidon Kremer; and between 2006 and 2009 Quatuor Danel recorded all of the string quartets, as well as two short early pieces. Those willing to give his music serious listening will not take long to appreciate that Weinberg’s work is far more than “warmed-over Shostakovich.” Caution may have muted any brashness in Weinberg’s rhetoric, but he never seemed to have trouble finding other ways in which to embody his expressiveness. Furthermore, Shostakovich himself wrote only one sonata for violin and piano, his Opus 134 in 1968!

The “bottom line” is that there are a little over two hours of opportunities for engaging listening in this album. Each of the sonatas (along with the sonatina) has its own virtues, although those virtues are probably better appreciated in isolation rather than in any attempt at “binge listening.” My only real quibble is with the booklet notes provided by Richard Whitehouse, which only seem to skim the surface of each of the selections. Most notably, he misses the appearance of a fugue in the fifth (Opus 53) sonata. Weinberg composed this in 1953, which would have been about two years after Shostakovich completed his full cycle of 24 preludes and fugues inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. There is a good chance that Weinberg knew about this work and admired it enough to respond by offering Shostakovich an instance of his own skills at writing a fugue.

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