Weinberg’s Potent Symphony No. 21 Given Bold Etching

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Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Weinberg: Symphony No. 2, Op. 30. Symphony No. 21 “Kaddish,” Op. 152. Kremerata Baltica. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Gidon Kremer, violin. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor. DG 483 6566 (2 CDs). Total Time: 88:59.

Composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg

DIGITAL REVIEW — Several years ago, there was something like a consensus in the classical music world about the greatness of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music. As was the case with Mahler, Weinberg’s work, which had been largely overlooked and underestimated during his lifetime (1919-1996), was finally coming to be appreciated; for the respected American music critic Alex Ross, for example, Symphony No. 21, Weinberg’s last completed symphony is “fully the equal of the later symphonies of his longtime friend and mentor Shostakovich.” Despite this high praise, however, and while most of his voluminous output has now been recorded, performances of Weinberg’s works are still pretty rare, especially in North America, and few major artists and/or orchestras have championed his music. With the release of this new recording of his Symphony No. 21, conducted by rising star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and featuring renowned violinist Gidon Kremer, perhaps the long-anticipated universal recognition of Weinberg’s greatness will finally come to fruition.

Weinberg, who was born in Warsaw and lost his family in the Holocaust, fled Poland in 1939 and finally made his way to relative safety in Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. After the war, being both Polish and Jewish, he suffered under Stalinist anti-Semitism and was imprisoned for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” It was his friend and colleague Dimitri Shostakovich who came to his rescue, enabling Weinberg to resume his career as a pianist and composer. But while Shostakovich became increasingly celebrated as the Soviet Union’s foremost living composer, Weinberg never received anything like the same attention. His music was certainly played and often recorded by prominent Soviet artists such as Kogan, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Kondrashin, and Svetlanov, but while conductors Ormandy, Stokowski, Toscanini ,and Koussevitsky vied with each other in the West to give the premiere of the latest Shostakovich symphony, they showed little or no interest in the symphonies of Weinberg. Even today, few major conductors or orchestras outside Russia program his music.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Orchestra

One exception is the young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2016. Following in the footsteps of Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, and Andris Nelsons in Birmingham, she has quickly won widespread acclaim for her musicianship and charisma. Weinberg has become one of her missions as a conductor, a mission to which she seems ideally suited. As valuable as it was to have any recording of this important work for the past 28 years, the first recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21, which was made by the Siberian Symphony Orchestra (Toccata TOCC0193) in 1991, pales by comparison with what Gražinytė-Tyla and her colleagues have achieved on this new DG recording.

Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21, which may well be the composer’s most important work, is personal and “programmatic” in the sense that it expresses the composer’s thoughts and feelings about the horrors of his life, from the Holocaust through the Stalinist era. It draws on his Polish roots with quotations from Chopin and his Jewish heritage with passages featuring a solo clarinet playing in klezmer style. It also includes numerous quotations from Weinberg’s own works and from Mahler. But ultimately, the symphony tells no particular story; Weinberg lets the music speak for itself. On the whole, it is a lyrical piece, stylistically somewhat old-fashioned for the 1990s, yet another demonstration that there is still much to be said in tonal music.

Although the Symphony No. 21 is scored for a very large orchestra, the full force of the ensemble is rarely brought into play; more often, there are extended solos for violin, clarinet, double bass, and other instruments, and chamber groups. An unusual feature is the use of a soprano soloist in the last movement. More unusual still, in this recording the soprano soloist is the conductor, Gražinytė-Tyla. She sings her wordless part with great purity of sound — rather like a boy soprano — and negotiates the wide intervallic leaps with impressive accuracy.

There is no doubt that Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21 is the work of an important composer and ought to be in the repertoire of all our major orchestras. This is music of originality and expressive power.

Soloist Gidon Kremer

Among the captivating features of the Symphony No. 21 are the poignant violin solos that occur in four of the six movements, performed here by Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, an artist who has done as much as anyone to bring Weinberg’s music to a wider audience. Also participating in the performance is Kremerata Baltica, a 21-member orchestra made up of outstanding musicians from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, created by Kremer in 1997. Kremerata Baltica joins with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gražinytė-Tyla in a performance as beautiful and as committed as any one could imagine.

This 2-CD set also contains Weinberg’s Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra — a much earlier work than the Symphony No. 21 — but also one of the composer’s finest pieces. In this performance, Kremerata Baltica is featured on its own with Gražinytė-Tyla conducting. Even more lyrical in style than the Symphony No. 21, one might describe it as “Romantic.” The opening bars harken back to the music of Richard Strauss — the sextet from Capriccio, perhaps? — but in no sense is this music imitative. This is unquestionably Weinberg’s own voice. Although there is a prevailing sadness in this mostly slow-moving music, there is humor too, especially in the pizzicato episodes.

Kremerata Baltica Orchestra debuted in 1997 at Austria’s Lockenhaus Festival

Listeners wanting to know more about Weinberg and his music ought to pay a visit to the website www.music-weinberg.net. A detailed discography has been compiled by Claude Torres and can be accessed from this same site. The definitive biography to date is David Fanning’s Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom (Wolke Verlag, 2010).

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.