REVIEWS: divine art dda 25107 Russian Piano Music vol. 10 (Weinberg II)
MUSICAL OPINION (joint review with vol. 9):
His piano works are among the most readily gratifying of his oevre, whether spunky miniatures or his bold and rudely melodious sonatas. The harmonic turns in the especially marvelous 1955 Fourth Sonata groove delightfully under the hands of Murray McLachlan; the Adagio is simply lyrical. The gentle and playfully dissonant elegance of the Fifth Sonata's or the sweet and sour agitation of the Sixth round out this very successful traversal of repertoire still not well enough known.
Released on Olympia in the late 90s, this cycle didn't make a splash. In its much deserved second outing on divine art, it should. Especially since – unfortunately, in a way – the performances are much better than those on the Grand Piano label's new Weinberg piano-works project with Allison Brewster Franzetti.
The adagio is a thoughtful, long drawn melody that conjures up a stillness and withdrawn emotion. This is a wonderful movement played with great feeling and control. McLachlan's playing has great emotional substance. The somewhat folksy finale allegro leads this sonata to a dynamic conclusion with challenging writing. If this was folk inspired then it soon develops into a much more complex piece before a quiet ending. I love this work and will return to it often.
The three movement Fifth Sonata is perhaps not as structurally perfect as the fourth but, in its own way, just as fine. The allegro opens powerfully before one realises that it is turning into a long developed passacaglia before eventually being overlaid in the form of a canon, developing into complex writing that is still based on the opening theme. Murray McLachlan keeps the overall line of this music superbly, despite its complexities.
An andante separates the two outer movements in music that is, again, reserved and withdrawn, sustaining a tentative melody over some ten minutes. There is great sensitivity of playing before the movement ends ambiguously. The allegretto finale has a delicate and playful opening until it develops into a formidable and complex section before falling back again. It builds up again but with less force before a pianissimo close. Just as with the first movement this is a wonderfully created flow of melody.
Weinberg's finale piano sonata, the Sixth Sonata, is a much smaller, two movement work. The adagio has an anguished opening with bell like chords. It is obvious just how far Weinberg had progressed since his early first sonata. There is a pause before the second subject that is more restrained and gentle, leading to a section where the music ruminates on a little rhythmic motif which soon ceases before the restrained theme returns.
A lightly sprung allegro molto introduces the second movement which works its way through fugal passages reaching a tremendous climax. What terrific playing there is from Murray McLachlan.
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.
Unfortunately the recording lacks depth as well as some ambiance, so in Weinberg's more disjunct utterances McLachlan has to be doubly persuasive (the open terrain of the extended slow movement of the Fifth Sonata is a case in point, or indeed the finale of the Sixth).
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1955) is dedicated to Gilels (who premiered the work in 1957; a live Gilels recording exists from that year, available on a Mezdunarodnaya Kniga disc). There is a decidedly Shostakovich tinge to the music (McLachlan rightly points to that composer's Second Piano Sonata). The slow section towards the end of the first movement is magical. The second movement, an Allegro, is mysterious (as opposed to magical, as the booklet notes claim). Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is the eight minute Adagio, a skeleton of a piece, hauntingly, even disconcertingly, bare. The contrast to the pronounced folk elements of the finale is stark indeed. Some of this finale sounds markedly Prokofievian. The introverted close is projected in fine fashion by McLachlan.
The Fifth Sonata (1956) is dedicated to Boris Tchaikovsky. It begins with a 603 measure Passacaglia, here well paced by McLachlan. A tremendous aggregation of sonority built up at the end (that old reviewing chestnut, "granitic" is here the mot juste) affords huge contrast to the simplicity of the ensuing Andante, which itself leads slowly into more tender territory. The finale confirms the Weinberg/Shostakovich link beyond doubt.
Finally, the Sixth Sonata (1960), this time premiered by a pupil of the mighty Gilels, Marina Mdivani. The two-movement piece contains perhaps the most daring music of the disc. The Adagio first panel speaks of wide open spaces. Counterpoint is restrained yet menacing; ominous chuggings vie with empty oscillations. It is left to the pecking staccato theme of the finale to provide some hope, and indeed the music's rise to a substantial climax provides some relief. The shadow of the Adagio looms large, though, and the impression one is left with remains rather disturbed. A tremendous disc, one fully worthy of investigation, although bear in mind my caveats about the actual recording quality.
INTERNATIONAL PIANO (joint review with vol. 9):
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.”