The Intimacy of Weinberg, through Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

Nov 21, 2017

The highly personalized expressions of Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg are one of the most compelling parts of the ECM Records catalog, which has just become available across digital platforms.

This is the first in a series of WCRB blog posts that bring you a personal perspective on richly rewarding CD releases you may not encounter otherwise.

I’m a child of the 1970s and ‘80s, which means I came of age as the tectonic forces of the Cold War reached their final climax in the crumbling of the Soviet Union. That’s one reason I find the ongoing series of Shostakovich recordings by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons so fascinating.

That project has not only galvanized the ensemble artistically and technically, it also allows us, through the frequency of Shostakovich on BSO programs, to more deeply experience the character and meaning of each of the composer’s works. Beyond the concert hall, I also find that what Shostakovich seems to express in his symphonies echoes through other explorations of the Cold War, like the incredible F/X series “The Americans” and the exquisite Mark Rylance movie “Bridge of Spies.”

Earlier this year, I came across an even more direct connection to these symphonies in two recordings of music by a friend of Shostakovich, Mieczysław Weinberg. And as the BSO and Nelsons continue their series, violinist Gidon Kremer and his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica are gradually building a recorded catalog of Weinberg’s works. At this writing, two recordings have been released, the first in 2014 and the second earlier this year (coinciding, incidentally, with Kremer’s most recent appearance with the BSO, when he was the soloist in a revelatory performance of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto).

And as of this week, because both recordings are part of the ECM Records catalog, they’re available for the first time on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

If the BSO’s Shostakovich has, so far, shown us the alienation, terror, emptiness, and even madness of life in the Soviet Union, it has done so through works that harness the full power and weight, and potential of epic landscapes painted by the large orchestrations those works demand. (Earlier this fall, the 11th, “The Year 1905,” generated an intensity unprecedented in the series thus far.)  

By contrast, Kremerata Baltica’s Weinberg takes us to a lot of the same territory, but through a different, more compact canvass, making them a perfect companion to the BSO’s project. Something of the same kind of intensity is almost constantly present, but it’s leavened by a more distinct lyricism, intimacy, and even optimism than in Shostakovich’s music.

(That word – “optimism” – is, in the context of Weinberg’s life, astonishing. He lost several members of his family in a pogrom in Warsaw, and the rest of his family were killed by Nazis. And that was all before he arrived in the Soviet Union, where his father-in-law was assassinated on orders from Stalin.)

Kremerata Baltica’s 2014 release is divided evenly between works for one to three players, and works for chamber orchestra. The 2017 release is devoted entirely to music for chamber orchestra. Weinberg was an incredibly prolific composer (seven operas, 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, six concertos, just for starters), and there’s no question that he could manage large forces equal to those Shostakovich deployed. But the Kremerata Baltica project makes a convincing case that this more contained realm reveals the most sincere, genuine, and, maybe, durable Weinberg.

The opening of the Violin Sonatina, written in 1949 and included in Kremerata’s 2014 release, is a good example of Weinberg’s easy, if haunted, lyricism:

More aligned with the gripping qualities of Shostakovich’s music is the first movement of the Symphony No. 10, written almost two decades later. An introduction that, for an instant, recalls the sunniness of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade is quickly overcome by dark clouds. And when those clouds clear, the landscape is jagged and unsettled:

Weinberg’s music went almost entirely unknown in the west for years. He apparently didn’t have much use for the Union of Soviet Composers, the channel through which just about all success was granted in that world. And while a few prominent artists (Shostakovich, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich, among others) promoted his music, he had neither the urge nor a knack for self-promotion.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, as his works emerged into the light, he re-fashioned several earlier works to create a series of four Chamber Symphonies. It’s as though, while the wider world re-discovered Weinberg as the Soviet system teetered and fell, he simultaneously re-discovered himself.

These later works make up the bulk of Kremerata Baltica’s 2017 release, and, to me, they’re even better than the chamber works as companions to the BSO Shostakovich symphonies. They’re just similar enough to feel as though they emerge from the same world, yet they’re so strongly imprinted with Weinberg’s voice that you’ll never mistake one for the other.

Take the Chamber Symphony No. 2. It opens with an urgency that, to me, invites some kind of narrative, a story to show us where we’re going:

Maybe it’s the cinematic qualities Weinberg learned writing for movies, or maybe it’s my own 21st century ears that impose that pictorial association on the music. Either way, it feels like a scene unfolding.

The second movement pulls off the Shostakovich-ian move of twisting a dance into something grotesque:

Ravel also fashioned a distorted waltz into La Valse to make a point about the passing of an age, but while the manic energy of that piece contains hints of desperation, Weinberg captures something that feels truly dangerous. It’s more purely painful, a high solo violin acting as a scream above the surreal landscape below.

The third and final movement begins with an overbearing, imposingly dark statement, but again, on a more manageable level than what Shostakovich would have written:

By the end, the solo violin you hear at the opening is frail and insecure.

It’s definitively bleak, maybe a reflection, in some way, of the composer’s life in his later years. But the overall scale of expression, from one extreme to the other, remains on the level of a one-to-one conversation.

Those are just a few short examples of how these pieces both reflect and depart from the symphonies Shostakovich wrote. In many of Shostakovich’s works, huge forces of the state arrayed against an individual play out in wide open spaces, bolstered by intrusions of mechanized terror. In these recordings of works by Weinberg, much of the same emotional landscape is transmitted, but through a private conversation over tea at a corner café.

One doesn’t eclipse the other. Rather, they combine to create a more complete portrait of a specific time and place than either one could on its own.

You can learn more about Mieczysław Weinberg in Boston Globe articles by David Weininger and Jeremy Eichler.

Listen to Kremerata Baltica's 2014 release of music by Weinberg:

Listen to Kremerata Baltica's 2017 release of music by Weinberg: