Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo (ECM New Series 2705)

Gidon Kremer
Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo

Gidon Kremer violin
Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
recorded December 2019
at Studio Residence Paliesius, Lithuania
Engineers: Vilius Keras and Aleksandra Kerienė
Sonata No. 3 recorded July 2013
at Lockenhaus Kammermusikfestival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

When Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) fled his homeland to escape the Nazis in the early stages of World War II, little could he have known the fate that would befall those left behind. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who eased his way into Russia, where the Stalinist regime would surely have killed him again had not the despotic leader died a month after Weinberg’s arrest for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in 1953. With more than a decade separating those events and his composing of the three solo violin sonatas recorded here, by which time his entire family had long perished in the concentration camps, there was yet room in his battered heart to amplify the need for humanity.

Violinist Gidon Kremer, who has championed Weinberg’s music on two previous discs with his Kremerata Baltica, offers the present program in reverse chronological order, starting with the Sonata No. 3, op. 126 (1979). Dedicated to his father and ostensibly taking form as a single movement, it is marked by borders that, like those in his life, were blessedly surmountable. It sharpens its blade of experience, forged in the fire of history, across stone-hard double stops before carving its way delicately through softer actions, snaking high lines, and bruised leitmotifs. Kremer navigates every chamber as if it belonged in his home, describing the furniture, curtain, and artwork hanging on the wall down to the last detail.

The concentrated sections of the Sonata No. 2, op. 95 (1967) take on descriptive titles. “Monody” digs up bare bones, while “Rests” shines a light on Weinberg’s brilliant personality. From “Intervals” to “Replies,” we see other sides of his visage—in the former, an angular nose; in the latter, a hair that refuses to stay combed. “Accompaniment” switches acrobatically from pizzicato to programmatic upswings as a magician might shuffle cards. “Invocation” cries for salvation, leaving only “Syncopes” to cut its jagged figure into the air with tactile dissonances.

Last is what came first: the Sonata No. 1, op. 82 (1964). There is a sad ebullience to its opening movement, characterized by alarming calls to action, which then turn on a dime into Bartókian flavors. The Andante is its dark side, churning as sediment in a river, slowed to the pace of a careful hunter. From there, the pointillism of a rotating Allegretto adds more stars to this sky, constellated by pliant bow work. After a multifaceted fourth movement, the final Presto recalls Bartók once again in its soil-scented urgency. Scratching motifs, strummed strings, and insistent harmonies pull each other in many directions, never straying from their handling. They know where they are going, even when everyone else around them is lost or falls behind.

As incredible as these pieces are, they are by no means “pleasant” to listen to. If anything, they listen to us, placing a stethoscope on our collective chest to amplify events we would rather ignore. If Bach’s solo violin works are of heavenly height, then Weinberg’s walk the valley of the shadow of death between them.

Kremerata Baltica: Mieczysław Weinberg (ECM New Series 2368/69)

Mieczysław Weinberg

Mieczysław Weinberg

Gidon Kremer violin
Daniil Grishin viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Daniil Trifonov piano
Kremerata Baltica
Recorded November 2012 and July 2013 in Neuhardenberg (opp. 42, 48, and 98) and Lockenhaus (opp. 46, 126)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

The name Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) may not be as well known as that of his dear friend Dmitri Shostakovich, but the music he penned is at last receiving overdue attention. As Wolfgang Sandner suggests in his liner notes for this ECM conspectus, the Polish-born, Russia-based composer’s obscurity has perhaps less to do with his toeing of the party line (as the great Soviet composers were wont to do) and more to do with his optimism. Although this risks painting Shostakovich with a pessimistic brush, it makes a salient point on the marketing potential of the tormented soul. Whatever the reasons for Weinberg’s lesser reputation, we can marvel at this recording’s confirmation of his compositional acumen.

No piece could be more indicative of Weinberg’s gifts than the Sonata No. 3 for violin solo. Written in 1979, his Opus 126 is a masterpiece that, despite sounding more like Bartók or Hindemith, belongs right alongside Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for the same instrument. Declamatory without being exclamatory and ideally suited to violinist Gidon Kremer’s style, it sings, full-throated, through a checkering of rustic and urban climates and achieves its cohesion by way of staggered exposition. Each section of the larger structure lends insight into the composer’s mind, corners of which may be quiet and melodic, while others may revel in an idyllic folk dance or two, and all of it leading to the ladder of harmonics, pizzicati, and whispers with which the piece closes.

The String Trio, Op. 48 of 1950, is an intriguing follow-up, not least for its relatively academic Andante, which is sandwiched by two far more mature reckonings. Yet musicians—Kremer, along with violist Daniil Grishin and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė—make spirited work of even the occasional pedantic bar, so that any playfulness beneath the seriousness of this early work is fully present by way of an intensely lyrical core. If anything, Weinberg’s youth in this instance is sometimes betrayed by a lack of subtlety, although its historical significance outweighs any such paltry concerns. On the other hand, Kremer and pianist Daniil Trifonov give vibrant account of the 1949 Sonatina, Op. 46. This far more distinctive triptych opens with a warped dance (the light steps of which are beautifully emphasized by the duo), moves on to an organic Lento (which, compared to the aforementioned Andante, allows the instruments to breathe), and finishes with an interpolated Allegro.

Two larger-scale works complete this two-disc program. The 1948 Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra, Op. 42 is another early example, but is eminently alluring for its romantic inclinations and modernist drive. The steeliness of the opening movement melts from Kremer’s bow, as his Kremerata Baltica provides the cyclical underpinnings of every line. The Lento that follows morphs from cadenza-like solo into shadowy dance, as if obscured by leaves and time. The concluding Allegro begins with muted strings before opening into a pizzicato-led flurry of activity and razor-thin interactions. Yet these delights bow to the program’s pièce de résistance, the Symphony No. 10, Op. 98. What makes this symphony so glorious is its scale: not in terms of vastness but intimacy. Over its five-movement course, we are led through a Neo-Baroque fantasy of exquisite construction. The clearest parallels are to Vivaldi, whose own string symphonies might very well have been on Weinberg’s mind, yet whose final Allegro of the Concerto No. 8 in A minor, RV 522 from L’estro armonico is a particularly vivid reference in the second half of the first movement. The central movements are achingly introspective and feature Kremer in a meta-narrative role throughout. The string writing is just as moving in the buoyant fourth movement, while the mounting consonance of the finale unleashes some percussive playing of instrument bodies and a threnody-like conclusion.

Integral to Weinberg’s music is its integrity, to which the Kremerata Baltica and charismatic leader attend with unflagging dedication. Not only do we feel the chasm of history yielding these forgotten treasures; we also understand the value of their latent exposure. This recording is a gift, and it deserves to be accordingly unwrapped.