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CD Review

Mieczysław Weinberg

String Quartets, Vol. 1

  • String Quartet #4, Op. 20
  • String Quartet #16, Op. 130
Quatuor Danel
CPO 777313-2 65:23
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Magnificent.

When the Nazis rolled into Poland, Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled to the Soviet Union. His parents and sister, who had stayed behind, perished in the death camps. Establishing new roots, Weinberg fell under the powerful influence of Shostakovich, essentially appropriating that composer's general idiom but (unlike most Soviet composers who traveled the same route) with a skill and depth that rivaled Shostakovich himself. Imagine, if you can, more symphonies (25, not counting the so-called "chamber symphonies") and string quartets (17) in Shostakovich's idiom and at Shostakovich's level, not written by Shostakovich, and you have some idea of Weinberg's achievement. Weinberg never studied with his inspiration but proudly proclaimed himself a disciple. For his part, Shostakovich seemed to regard Weinberg as a kind of musical son and encouraged his career whenever he could. Many credit him with saving Weinberg's life by speaking out (at considerable personal risk) when the latter was about to disappear into a gulag during one of Stalin's postwar anti-Semitic purges.

I should point out that Weinberg, despite the surface similarities, retained an artistic profile distinct from Shostakovich. In general, his music is warmer, even at times more Romantic. Furthermore, the influence flowed in both directions. Weinberg got Shostakovich interested in Jewish klezmer music, which produced, among other things, Shostakovich's masterful cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. By his own example, he also nudged Shostakovich to take a deeper look at the genre of string quartet. Indeed, the two composers entered into friendly competition, and Shostakovich was extremely proud of the fact that he had reached ten string quartets before Weinberg did.

The enterprising label CPO has begun an integral edition of all of Weinberg's string quartets with the Quatuor Danel. Based on the two works here, I hope they make it all the way. These two scores would be considered masterpieces had Shostakovich actually written them. If the rest comes up to the marks these set, we have a major quartet cycle of the Twentieth Century.

The Fourth Quartet of 1945 begins as an abstract pastoral. The first movement consists of four prominent ideas, three of which turn out to be related and keep turning into each other. For me, the interest lies in Weinberg's mastery of thematic transformation and finding new emotional contexts for his themes. It goes through a range of mood, from serene to dramatic to sorrowful. The second movement, a grotesque scherzo, begins by throwing off all kinds of colorful sparks, due to a battery of special bowing techniques. The writing approaches orchestral sectional contrasts. A lot goes on contrapuntally. The trio, when it finally arrives, comes as a shock. Divided mainly between the viola and the cello, each playing long sections alone or with minimal "fill chords" mainly from the violins, the texture becomes simple and stark – as if one looks over a waste, not unlike the mood in the finale of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony. The scherzo returns, and the movement sports a kind of risus mortui until the close.

From this point on, the quartet gains in emotional depth. The slow movement is a funeral march à la Mahler, in that it refers to a musical tradition of Trauermarschen from Beethoven and Chopin to Mahler. It combines features of sonata and continual variation. It runs nine minutes in a slow tempo, but you probably won't snooze. As in the first movement, Weinberg combines and recombines bits and pieces of four disparate themes and shows that they are, in fact, related. This gives the movement terrific unity. The grief here doesn't seem personal. Rather, it laments in a universal way, mainly because it leans on conventional musical tropes, although the treatment is anything but bland or hackneyed. The finale, on the other hand, constitutes something both personal and enigmatic. It opens with a stunning, naked reference to the beginning of Mendelssohn's Octet – in its key, its texture, and its theme. However, it soon becomes clear that Weinberg concerns himself with the tail end of the theme, a falling third. The rest of the movement concerns itself with variations based on this interval (including fleeting hints of Beethoven's Fifth). Dramatically, however, a parallel scenario occurs. The movement loses and tries to retrieve the Mendelssohnian innocence. The Octet texture weakens and occurs less and less frequently for shorter and shorter appearances until it gives way to a rather brittle passage. It occasionally tries to interrupt, but the new music ignores it and goes on. Eventually, the movement changes to "struggle music," much like the near-end of the first movement of Beethoven's fifth, although with Mendelssohn-derived themes, and we end not with the unalloyed joyful E Flat Major we began in, but in E-flat minor. That is, we return to the forms, but not to the substance of innocence. The fight we have undergone makes the latter impossible. The movement is too quirky not to point to something in the composer's life, but what that may be is anybody's guess.

No doubt at all about the personal meaning of Quartet #16 from 1981. Weinberg dedicated it to the memory of his sister, Ester, who died in the Nazi camps. The first movement, according to the liner notes, contains hints of klezmer. According to me, the folk and popular music of Russian Jews just about shout at you. It's as if Weinberg says, "Yeah, I'm Jewish. You want to make something of it?"

The first movement brims with "village music." Weinberg works with three thematic groups in a much freer way than in the earlier quartet. Like Sibelius, he arranges bits and pieces into a mosaic of musical riffs. Cells from one thematic group eventually appear with those of other groups, but the movement nevertheless follows general sonata form. More important, the narrative thread begins vigorously and becomes more and more so until near the end, where the texture suddenly pares down to single instruments, soft dynamics, and slower tempi. The shtetl, in effect, disappears.

For his second movement, Weinberg creates an idiosyncratic scherzo and trio. The scherzo has no themes in the usual sense. It's basically rising and falling fourths and chords based on the same. It doesn't pulse in three, except very rarely as a kind of off-hand reference to the traditional form. It's declamatory and, to my mind, angry. It's also relatively brief. The bulk of the movement goes to the trio – again, a reversal of the usual practice – quiet and almost affectless, as if numbness has set in. The composer directs some of the instruments to play without vibrato and everyone to play on the fingerboard, which effectively takes the starch out of a string instrument's sound. The scherzo returns in a quieter, more austere version, as if Weinberg has deadened all feeling, including anger.

The third movement grieves, bleakly and yet tenderly. Again, Weinberg builds a sui generis form, rather than the liner notes assertion of a passacaglia base. In the first place, the so-called passacaglia's theme is absent through much of the movement. Instead the lament unfolds, quietly but surely, in its own way.

With the emotional drama presented so far, the question quickly becomes how it will resolve. Obviously, unalloyed victory, like the finale to Beethoven's Fifth, is out of the question. We obviously need something more nuanced. The last movement begins with a melancholy dance tune, very similar to Slavic klezmer. A downward dramatic gesture, originally in the viola, provides the contrast. Again, Weinberg develops the two ideas mostly simultaneously. Finally we reach a long, quiet passage which hints at a calm resolution – in the emotional terms set by the quartet so far, acceptance. However, Weinberg veers from there to a mini-recap of ideas from the finale, first, and third movements, and then to a series of quiet, enigmatically-tonal chords. The last of these sounds, paradoxically, both final and provisional, as if to say, "This is the best I can do."

For the most part, the Quatuor Danel plays superbly. Each instrument individual inflects and shades his line. Ensemble is usually perfect, though I have quibbles with first violinist Marc Danel. Twice in the Fourth Quartet, he drowns out a thematically important voice, apparently because he thinks his is the most important line. This happens only rarely, I admit, but because the standard of musicianship is so high everywhere else (these pieces aren't that easy on players or listeners), I found these two lapses surprising, more than anything else. Nevertheless, this disc kicks off wonderfully well what I'm sure will be an important series in the history of recorded music, like the Beethoven Quartet's Shostakovich. Hats off to the Quatuor Danel and to CPO.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.