In the September 2014 issue of The New Criterion, I wrote about Mieczysław Weinberg, whose opera The Passenger had been performed in New York. The opera was written in the late 1960s; it is about the Holocaust.
Who is Weinberg? Or was? In that 2014 piece, I wrote a few biographical lines:
Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919. His father was a musician and his mother an actress, both involved in the Yiddish theater. Weinberg graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939—not the most auspicious of years. When the war came, he fled to the Soviet Union and stayed there for the rest of his life. His family was murdered in the Holocaust.
What happened in the Soviet Union?
Weinberg married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels, the famous actor, who was murdered by the Soviets in 1948. Weinberg himself was arrested in February 1953—and saved when Stalin died early the next month. (A lot of people were saved by that death.) Weinberg had the fortune of becoming a friend of Shostakovich, who helped the younger man along.
That younger man lived to the age of seventy-six, dying in 1996, five years after the expiration of the Soviet Union.
In our March 2015 issue, I wrote about Weinberg yet again. That’s because a recital by Gidon Kremer and Daniil Trifonov—the veteran Latvian violinist and the young Russian pianist—featured his music. The duo played a violin sonata, and Kremer subsequently played another sonata, unaccompanied.
“A few days later,” I wrote in that ’15 piece,
I got a notice from a publicist: a recording of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3 was about to be released. A few days after that, I saw that an album of Weinberg’s music, made by Gidon Kremer and friends, had been nominated for a Grammy. Until last summer, I had never heard a note of Mieczysław Weinberg, that I remember. Now it’s raining Weinberg.
The rain has come again, fortunately. I have listened to a new recording of Weinberg’s music on the Steinway & Sons label. And yet this is not entirely a piano recording. There is a pianist, but she needs friends. There are three works on the album: a piano quintet; a sonatine for piano; and a cello-and-piano sonata.
This is a strong dose of Weinberg, and he is impressive.
The piano quintet is a major work—a major chamber work—or certainly a long one, lasting more than forty-five minutes. It is in five movements, the centerpiece of which is the fourth, a Largo, which lasts almost fifteen minutes. The quintet was composed in 1944.
When the music is beautiful, that beauty sounds conditional: it could go the other way at any moment.
And it sounds like it. What I mean is, it is sad, haunted, and sometimes martial. That will surprise no one. The music is unsettling, even when it is gay, or trying to be so. When the music is beautiful, that beauty sounds conditional: it could go the other way at any moment.
Shostakovich wrote like this too, didn’t he? Yes, but Weinberg is his own man, even if a cousin, musically, of that great composer.
In the liner notes of this new recording, Weinberg is quoted as saying that “the most important thing in music—including instrumental music—is melody,” which gives a piece its “identity.” That gives you an idea of his musical cast of mind.
The Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano is another major chamber work. But before we get to it, we hear the sonatine, as a kind of palate cleanser. Does anyone write sonatines, or sonatinas, anymore? Ravel’s is certainly the most enduring.
Weinberg’s sonatine is brief, lasting about seven minutes. It is simple and folk-inflected—and enjoyable and interesting. The second movement has an unusual marking: Adagietto lugubre. The sonatine at large reminds me of Kabalevsky, who wrote a lot of piano music for children, or music of a child-like nature. In fact, he wrote two sonatinas.
That cello sonata? It is calm, nervous, sad, beautiful (conditionally), other things. Intelligent. Soviet, in its bones. In May, I was complaining that there were too few cello sonatas in the world, necessitating the performance of the Chopin sonata, which I was knocking. Well, cellists and their piano partners can avail themselves of Weinberg, too.
For that matter, if pianists want a brief charmer, they can program the sonatine.
The pianist on the Steinway & Sons album is Jeanne Golan. She is joined by the Attacca Quartet, whose cellist, Andrew Yee, is plucked for the sonata. All involved play with appreciation and care. The liner notes are written by the pianist, who says, “Now beginning to be known outside of Russia, Weinberg is one of the most significant and prolific composers of the 20th Century.” Is it true what she says about significance? At any rate, Mieczysław Weinberg is a composer to know, and I’m glad that I now do.