REVIEWS: divine art dda 25107  Russian Piano Music vol. 10 (Weinberg II)

MUSICAL OPINION (joint review with vol. 9):
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)
James Palmer

Ten years ago, record stores still existed, and they had five differently spelled index-cards for Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Or more likely: none at all, because his time hadn't come. But we've been discovering Weinberg since, a composer resembling his buddy Shostakovich, but without the smile. (Or so goes my simplistic quip.)

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.
Jens Laurdsen

2012 has been the year I've really got to know this endlessly fascinating composer whose star is at last on the ascendant. I have discovered that, contrary to some assessments, Weinberg was no mere clone of his friend and mentor Shostakovich. Instead he stands as a true innovator and original musical thinker whose music was as much an influence on Shostakovich as vice versa. In common with his friend he incorporated folk themes into his compositions; not only Russian but also Polish and Moldavian, drawing on his own and his family's origins, and, of course Jewish. It was in his use of Jewish themes that his musical personality becomes particularly distinctive. That aspect had a marked effect on Shostakovich and is the main explanation for his use of such themes in many of his compositions. The special feature emerging from these influences is a profoundly affecting mixture of jollity, nostalgia, sadness, regret and resignation.
In an earlier review of a disc of Weinberg's piano music I wrote that I would not try to dissect the music which in any event is difficult for a non pianist but I feel compelled to make an attempt on this occasion. First up is his Fourth Piano Sonata which has an interesting opening that sounds as if it's in the middle of a phrase. This sonata was written in 1955 and was dedicated to Emil Gilels who gave the first performance on 19 February 1957. One can appreciate why people thought of Shostakovich's influence over the younger Weinberg as there is much about the writing that does remind one of him. There's a ‘modern' feel to the writing and that appealing use of dissonance that was a feature of composition at the time. Though it has a melancholic beginning it soon becomes less so as it progresses and eventually comes to a thrilling climax. The second short movement has a really memorable little tune that is stated and then improvised on; the speed is fast and exciting. The third, slow movement brings back a feeling of melancholia with a dark and brooding nature in charge throughout. Allison Brewster Franzetti whose disc I reviewed some months ago takes this movement at a faster pace finishing almost two minutes quicker but the longer time Murray McLachlan takes does the movement gretaer justice in emphasising the sad nature more effectively. The finale brings Weinberg's use of Russian folk melodies into play while reintroducing some of the earlier themes. While there is also a touch of sadness here the overall mood is lighter in character and the resolution is achieved with an enveloping aura of peace.
Weinberg's Piano sonata no.5 begins with what Per Skans, who wrote the booklet notes, says is almost unique in all piano literature, a passacaglia that lasts all of 603 bars. It is certainly serious in nature with some beautifully dense writing and a relentless drive towards its conclusion. The andante is the longest movement of this sonata and of all three on the disc. It is exceptionally slow throughout its length and ends suddenly. The finale marked allegretto is a rondo that alternates between fast and slow paces and concludes with a pianistic whisper. The final sonata Weinberg wrote, his Sixth , is uncharacteristically short with only two movements and lasts twelve and a half minutes. The first and second sections of the opening movement are so distinctively different that one can be forgiven for thinking they are separate movements. The movement dies away which seems a favourite feature of Weinberg. The second movement which is fugue-like embodies more folk-inspired melodies and gathers momentum from its slow beginning to a powerfully stated climax. This serves as a fitting conclusion to his cycle of piano sonatas.
This disc is another great addition to the increasing discography of this wonderful composer. His originality shines through at every turn. Murray McLachlan is a great exponent of 20 th century and contemporary piano compositions. He has many first performances to his credit. This disc is further proof of his intelligent approach. It does wonderful service to the composer's intentions. This is a disc to savour.
 Steve Arloff

By the Fourth Sonata (1955) it is clear that Weinberg has reached a mature style. There is subtlety and depth in the first movement allegro with the material superbly developed with a greater sense of form. The shorter allegro second movement proves the perfect foil for the opening movement. There is restraint in the forward movement of the music, contrasted with some dense and formidable passages perfectly handled by Murray McLachlan. 

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.

Weinberg is all the rage now, what with the English National Opera staging of The Passenger, and Allison Brewster Franzetti's recordings of his piano music (on the Grand Piano label: Volume 1 comprises the first two piano sonatas, the Lullaby, op. 1, and Two Mazurkas of 1933; Volume 2 includes the Fourth Sonata) to mention but two notable forays into this composer's oeuvre. The label Neos, too, has been exploring, and its disc of Weinberg's Requiem was on my Want List for 2012. Murray McLachlan has long revelled in the exploration of the lesser-known parts of the piano's repertoire and here, as part of his Russian Piano Music Series, are the last three sonatas. This is, in fact, Volume 10 of this series (the volumes are shared out between McLachlan, Anthony Goldstone, and Sergei Dukachev). Volume 9 was the first of the Weinberg recordings, and comprised the Sonatas Nos. 1 -3 along with the 17 Easy Pieces, op. 24.

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.
Colin Clarke

INTERNATIONAL PIANO (joint review with vol. 9):
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.”
Michael Round