MUSICAL OPINION (joint review with vol. 10):
Two important CDs of mid-20 th century Soviet piano music almost on a par with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, admirably played by this splendidly gifted pianist, whose championing of unknown piano music of this era has brought extraordinary revelations. So it is here - at this stage in his career, the composer had much of value to say, although the first movement of No. 6 shows the composer tending to lose his individuality. Virtually flawless playing and recording.
***** (five stars awarded)
History, the greatest of critics, quickly sorts out the fine, and even the very fine, from the great. It has not assigned Mieczyslaw Weinberg a place in the front ranks of composers, but still, the music of Weinberg is indeed very fine. He is a superb craftsman, and, like the more prominent Shostakovich and Prokofiev, his compositions are relentlessly intense, and their sharply chiseled structure glares out at us, refusing to be forgotten. Weinberg has a considerable melodic gift as well, but somehow the sounds—unmistakably Soviet sounds—do not seem to be his own. The usual references to bombs, bells, marches, the hardness of life, do not often cast their spell. Even so, they certainly reflect the times, but Prokofiev and Shostakovich, reflect something about themselves as well. That seems to be the missing element in these sonatas.
The term “Silver Age,” sometimes used to describe the poetry of Sologub and Blok, very well suits the works of their musical contemporaries. One is tempted to call the following, the Soviet era, the “Stainless-Steel Age:” cold, rigid, hard-edged. The sonatas of Shostakovich and Prokofiev often demand these qualities, and a “stainless steel” sound crept into the playing of the artists of the times such as Yudina and Sofronitski. So much so that even when they played Schubert, Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff, that new hard sound was there.
Weinberg seems to invite such an approach, but it is pleasant to hear his work played by Murray McLachlan who has a beautiful supple tone, adding a wider field of sonority and textures than one would expect from works such as these. His pianissimo s are remarkably beautiful. The only comparison available to me is the American pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti who has recorded some of the sonatas for Grand Piano Records. Although she plays with integrity and conviction, McLachlan is more imaginative, and perhaps has the technical edge on her as well.
CLASSICAL MUSIC SENTINEL:
The final Allegro molto of the Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 5 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) is a hell of a challenge to play, but yet pianist Murray McLachlan captures all of the underlying emotions at its core. While his right hand hammers out the cries of fear, his left hand is pounding out the shouts of dissension. You can almost see the storm troopers advancing in the distance. You can feel the rebellious nature of the young Weinberg coming through. Jump forward only two years to the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 8 , and you can tell Weinberg has assimilated the "soviet" sound and applied his own voice to it. It's most readily apparent in the haunting Adagio movement beautifully expressed by McLachlan. And by the time you reach the Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 31 , the composer has mastered the sonata form and can therefore focus on a deeper, more complex musical narrative. Miniature musical caricatures abound in the 17 Easy Pieces, Op. 34 written the same year, most likely as educational material for children and beginners. With titles like A Tin Soldier, Father Frost, and Catch me if you can Weinberg injected a sense of humor and play within these instructive pieces, while making them difficult enough to provide a solid musical foundation. Murray McLachlan clearly identifies and exposes each one's distinct character.
Over the last 10 to 15 years or so, there has finally been an overdue resurgence of interest in the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg . His captivating symphonies have been well served in excellent recordings recently, so now it's reassuring to see the same care being applied to his piano music output. A Weinberg II including his Sonatas 4, 5 and 6 is already expected to be released soon, also with pianist Murray McLachlan at the keyboard. The Russian Piano Music Series of recordings on the Divine Art label has been a pleasure to follow, with one great release after another, and this 9th volume in the series is no exception. It's proven to be my favorite yet. It may very well set the bar high for future Weinberg interpreters.
The 21 year old composer's First Piano Sonata is remarkably forward looking in its dissonance. It opens with strongly dissonant chords before the entry of a quiet theme that is almost atonal in its freedom, before developing into a richer, more complex climax before a quiet close. The allegretto is light and jolly with a slightly manic Shostakovich sound. The andantino is quietly flowing, dissonant melody whilst the allegro molto finale that concludes this work is full of energy. Murray McLachlan is excellent here, always maintaining the flow and line of the music.
Weinberg's Second Sonata starts with a driven allegro. There is less obvious dissonance in this sonata, more subtlety. The central section, whilst more gentle has a forward drive which never seems to stop. The allegretto, though with a similar momentum, nevertheless does provide some respite after the first movement. The third movement is a gentle adagio, freely flowing across various keys. This is an entrancing movement, somewhat mysterious in its feel and wonderfully played. The vivace finale, a rondo, is again very tonally free, whilst at one point quoting from Haydn, something I hadn't noticed until reading Per Skans note. There is some formidable playing in this work.
By the three movement Third Sonata there seems to be an established Weinberg style, free flowing, with free use of tonality. The andante tranquillo is certainly such a movement. The dissonance is still there but subsumed into the overall sweep of the movement. There is more formidable playing from Murray McLachlan. In the wrong hands this music could lose the flow, momentum and sense of structure but McLachlan maintains all of this superbly.
The adagio sounds folk music inspired and is picked out slowly, along with a dissonant accompaniment. This is another of Weinberg's strange slow movement creations. In the moderato con moto, Shostakovich does seem to loom, yet Weinberg manages to enlarge on his theme and brings something new and personal.
The 17 Easy Pieces are a set of charming miniatures lasting between 13 seconds and 2 minutes, which cannot be easy to play. More it is their simple charm that the title must refer to. There are attractive pieces such as the Bach like The Nightingale, a quite beautiful little The Sick Doll, an effective little Melancholy Waltz, The Goldfish that threatens to turn into London Bridge is Falling Down, and the longest piece The Dolls that is quite lovely. You can almost imagine Weinberg sitting at his piano improvising these pieces. McLachlan certainly gives that impression.
Murray McLachlan is ideal in this repertoire, playing with both sensitivity and bravura. These former Olympia recordings are excellent, with excellent piano tone and there are first rate notes by the late Per Skans. These beautifully produced discs are thoroughly recommended.
INTERNATIONAL PIANO (joint review with vol. 10):
Here are Volumes 9 and 10 of Divine Art's ever-enterprising Russian Piano Music Series. My colleague Colin Clarke reviewed a rival Grand Piano Weinberg sonata CD for IP in July/August, and supplied some background. There is now a Grand Piano sequel (GP607), coupling the Fourth Sonata with the Sonatina, Op 49 and the 10-movement Partita, Op 54, placing the two labels in more direct competition.
First impressions of Mieczyslaw Weinberg? Shostakovich without the jokes, you may think. The sound-world is bleak and often frenzied, unsurprisingly recalling Shostakovich, given the older man's friendly (and on occasion life-saving) influence. The humourlessness is understandable, given Weinberg's hounding by – successively – the Nazis and Stalin, and is summed up with artless understatement in the note writer's comment, ‘A Jewish artist in the Soviet Union did not exactly enjoy an easy life'. Weinberg composed indefatigably, however: just six piano sonatas (1940-60) but, among his total of 154 opus numbers, there are also 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets and a Trumpet Concerto that piano accompanists may already know.
The best entry for newcomers – be they listeners or players – is the Fourth Sonata (premiered by Gilels, no less) the most well-known and arguably finest piece in these two volumes. Murray McLachlan's performance, here as elsewhere, is brawny, relentlessly energetic and fully committed, encompassing the slow movement's gigantic stretches with enviable ease. Nervous listeners should warm up on the 17 Easy Pieces, all very short, enticingly harmonised and many of them ripe for early-grade exam syllabuses. Both discs were originally recorded in Sweden in 1996 and issued on Olympia: the recorded piano sound stops just this side of twangy.”
Murray McLachlan's Olympia recordings of Weinberg's solo piano music have been reissued on Divine Art. This volume, the ninth of the Russian Piano Music series, in which Weinberg's is placed, contains his first three sonatas and the Easy Pieces cycle. All the works were written between 1940 and 1946.
The First sonata of 1940 was written when Weinberg was 21. It opens with a startling bell cluster but from then the music subsides to extreme refinement and delicacy for much of the next seven minutes: this movement lasts almost as long as the succeeding three. They are variously an exciting Allegretto , a taut Andantino and a finale that becomes increasingly dramatic and extroverted. The Second sonata (1942) was premiered by Emil Gilels who had also played the earlier work as well. The opening Allegro of this Second sonata sounds uncannily like a near cousin of the finale of No.1 in its explosive energy levels. It's followed by one of Weinberg's characteristic drily witty cum wintry Allegrettos . The slow movement twists its way harmonically, even ruggedly at points, whilst the finale quotes from Haydn's Symphony No.88, the first Allegro in fact.
The Third sonata is a more powerfully wide ranging work than its two predecessors. It has a quasi-improvisational quality and a folk-inspired slow movement theme and variations that are appealing and textually attractive. Much is largely melancholy and withdrawn, but much is also beautiful. There's a three-part fugue to finish the sonata. Finally the 17 Easy Pieces, Op.24 which are not quite the pedagogic beginner's material that they might at first seem. In fact several require a strong technique to do justice to these mood or character pieces. They certainly met the insatiable demand for such material in the Soviet Union extremely well.
The acoustic in Ensemble Hall, in Gothenburg University's Music Department is a touch dry but does little to obscure McLachlan's thoroughly idiomatic and assured playing.