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CD Review

Violin Sonatas

Kolja Blacher, violin
Jascha Nemtsov, piano
Hänssler Classic CD93.190 65:42
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Music for a time of witness.

World War II found the Soviet Union struggling for its life. More Russians died during the fighting than any other group. The war's end, however, didn't stop the horror. Stalin, whose mind had been on survival during the war, now had the luxury of indulging his paranoia against his own citizens. There were new purges. The Zhdanov decree of 1948 condemned the major Soviet composers – including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Khachaturian, and Weinberg – for bourgeois formalism, a term that meant whatever the Stalinists felt convenient. Weinberg's father-in-law, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, the most prominent Jew in the country, was murdered openly on the streets by the KGB. Weinberg himself was imprisoned for months and about to disappear into a gulag when a letter from Shostakovich, defending him to the authorities, saved him. It would be odd indeed if Stalin's purges and repressions hadn't marked these men. All the music here comes across as letters from hell.

Weinberg always considered himself a Shostakovich disciple, although he never studied with the older man. Writers have criticized Weinberg as a mere imitator, a charge as truthful of Schumann and Brahms. Weinberg takes Shostakovich's basic language, but creates something his own. It's as if you have twenty-odd more symphonies and seventeen more string quartets not only in the Shostakovich idiom, but at Shostakovich's level.

Weinberg's third and fourth sonatas both come from 1947. Both share a similarity of mood but exhibit great formal variety. The third sonata, in three movements (fast-slow-fast), is more classically oriented. The first movement plays with three themes in an abbreviated sonata form. The second is a cantabile based on a theme of rising fourths, and the finale something like a sonata-rondo, with a slow coda. The fourth sonata is far more free-form, more sui generis. Weinberg nominally divides the sonata into two movements, but one finds so many correspondences between the two that it really does impress the ear as one large movement. Many ideas surface and undergo development, but two stand out: the opening, rising theme (roughly, C-Eb-Ab) and a passage of the violin's cantabile against a quiet line of block chords in the piano, which Nemtsov compares to Messiaen's "Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus" movement from the Quartet for the End of Time. The entire structure is slow-fast-slow, with the fast section – a series of bugle calls and quick runs – marking the beginning of the formal second movement. The music takes a frenzied ride and comes to a sudden stop for an extended cadenza on the violin. The "end of time" music sneaks back in, and the sonata ends with an echo of the opening rising theme.

Shostakovich completed his only violin sonata in 1968. It shows the marks of his interest in dodecaphonic music, piqued by his friendship with Benjamin Britten and by his encounters with his own students. The government still officially frowned on this sort of thing, and I'm sure Shostakovich did very little to point it out, since he managed to get it published and recorded. I recall fondly Oistrakh and Richter on EMI/Melodya, which may have constituted its première. The twelve-tone stuff shouldn't bar anyone from being emotionally overwhelmed by this score. It all sounds like late Shostakovich. Phrasing is traditional. Climaxes arrive at the expected places. If you can handle the 13th and 14th symphonies, you can certainly stand up to this. This and the even-later Viola Sonata stand among Shostakovich's greatest works.

The players begin with a lament, the violin emphasizing its middle and low range. Immediately, one notices the spare, even thin texture – often two lines, sometimes down to one. A "Jewish" section follows, a slow klezmer-like dance. Weinberg, incidentally, introduced Shostakovich to Eastern European klezmer, which bore fruit most famously in Shostakovich's song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. The sonata differs from that earlier work in that one finds very little joy. Indeed, it dawns on you that you've stepped into the middle of a dance of death, and the movement grows ever more haunted as it winds and weeps to its conclusion.

The second movement explodes in a brutal, barbaric dance. Anger shoots off of it in waves, too much, really, to come down to the merely personal. Shostakovich himself characterized this entire sonata as a meditation on death. Shostakovich builds in powerful asymmetries, inserting gaps into the line as if snatching a breath between the rants. In this movement, apocalyptic in scope, you can hear the screams and almost see the pale horse and the pale rider.

As devastating as the sonata has been so far, the finale crowns the work. It's essentially a set of variations with more than a hint of passacaglia. However, it's where Shostakovich leaves you emotionally rather than the structure per se that accounts for its glory. Shostakovich doesn't try to force transcendence or wallow in self-pity. This is essentially an heroic, but clear-eyed look into the abyss. One feels the mystery of death and the acceptance of that mystery. What is nothingness like? Since we are never conscious of it, not even in death, that particular door remains closed.

I made the acquaintance of the Shostakovich sonata through the Oistrakh and Richter recording, the year the composer wrote the score. It's been a faithful friend all this time, but to me Blacher and Nemtsov surpass it. It may be a question of standing on the shoulders of giants, but the new team penetrates the score more deeply. Oistrakh and Richter get the heroism inherent in the music, but it's a sunnier view. Blacher and Nemtsov get more of the horror, and their heroism seems more mature. I believe the Weinberg sonatas receive their first recording, and it's a fine start. However, Weinberg is as deep as Shostakovich. More people taking him up will reveal more of the music.

Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz