When you think of a composer doing it tough in Soviet Russia, your mind probably jumps to Shostakovich. Of course, he wasn’t the only one who struggled (and ‘struggled’ is putting it lightly). Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled the Germans twice, and met further trouble in the Soviet capital when he was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism”. Despite hardships, Weinberg managed a 50-year career, completing an impressive 22 symphonies as well as numerous concertos and chamber works.
The Warsaw Philharmonic under Jacek Kaspszyk has chosen this lesser-known composer for its most recent release, with a performance of Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony and his violin concerto. Violinist Ilya Gringolts is a fantastic force on the disc, delivering an impassioned performance that shows off not only his skill but also his emotional depth. The orchestra is similarly fine, with gutsy playing in the faster movements of both works.
In truth, the music pays a huge debt to Shostakovich. Telltale harmonic shifts, stark contrasts in orchestration in the faster movements (particularly wind writing), and a pervading sense of melancholy in the slow movements bear the unmistakeable influence of Weinberg’s friend and contemporary. And as Shostakovich’s music is stained with bitter irony, so too, at times, does Weinberg’s bear the mark of sorrow and loss.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of Weinberg’s writing though is his sense of melodic craft – jerky or energetic in faster movements, lyrical and searching when slow. Also present are myriad folk influences: Jewish and Polish music that give Weinberg’s scores a sense of excitement and energy. If you’re a fan of Shostakovich, this disc is a great opportunity to discover someone of a similar aesthetic and direction, with a Polish twist.