United Kingdom Mussorgsky, Weinberg: Alex Jakeman (flute), BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 15.5.2019. (RB)
Modest Mussorgsky – Khovanshchina (Prelude: Dawn on the Moscow River) (1872-1880)
Mieczysław Weinberg – Morning-Red (The Dawn), op. 60 (1957), Concerto No. 1 for flute and string orchestra, op. 75 (1961), Symphony No. 4, op. 61 (1957, rev. 1961)
Here was an all-Russian concert with dawn featuring in quite different ways in the Mussorgsky and the sometimes roaringly uproarious Morning-Red (The Dawn). The Mussorgsky is heard in Shostakovich’s reverential job with none of the younger composer’s DNA on show. Icy fog seems to rise in clouds off the Moskva river. Tension is also supplied by the evocation of a persistently tolled bell.
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish-born Jewish composer. He passed most of his maturity in the USSR after being driven from his homeland by the 1939 German invasion. The year of his centenary is being marked in many ways, including in this concert – not that we are at close quarters with a composer otherwise neglected. There have been many Weinberg CDs over these last two decades. A few of his operas have been revived. His music has clawed the way to the heights, and it has begun to enjoy a justified place in the vicinity of the composer he revered and with whom he studied: Shostakovich. Posthumously he has already had celebrations to enable us to appreciate the music. There was a four-day conference in January this year at the University of Manchester, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, co-sponsored by the British Academy and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Warsaw. The Quatuor Danel performed all of Weinberg’s seventeen string quartets. The Danel have already given us his quartets on CPO, and have played them for other Martin Harris Centre concerts over the last five years.
We should also note the recording of Weinberg’s Symphonies No. 2 and No. 21 Kaddish, the latter completed in 1991 and dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla leads the Kremerata Baltica and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon 4836566. This recording, set down in Vilnius last year, is Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s debut on disc.
The Weinberg sequence began with the world premiere of Morning-Red. This was a tone poem for the fullest orchestra of the day – rather heftier than a prelude. Marked out as different from the Mussorgsky, this seemed to be more what dawn signalled than an evocation of dawn itself. It had extended subdued opening, very tense and dark, but soon rose in street-poster style with rip-roaring primary colours to a clamorous close. The early pages were Weinberg’s equivalent to the Razliv movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12. This is very much a work to face the Soviet public, if not the communist party Praesidium.
The first of two Weinberg Flute Concertos was written for, and dedicated to, flautist Alexander Korneyev. Here it was played with much dazzling coruscation and in the Largo pensive aplomb by Alex Jakeman, BBCPO’s Principal Flute. The outer movements reminded me of Malcolm Arnold who also wrote two flute concertos. The concerto is more than mere entertainment but that is no obstacle to its openness to entertain.
The last piece in the programme, was, ironically enough, the piece by which many in the West came to know Weinberg’s name, even if it was given as Moisei Vainberg. That was the name on the EMI-Melodiya vinyl from the 1970s (ASD2755, reissued as Olympia OCD622). Weinberg’s 1959 Violin Concerto – played by Leonid Kogan, the dedicatee – was back-to-back with Kondrashin conducting this Fourth Symphony. Kondrashin’s version showed up on a Melodiya CD, and the coupling of Concerto and Symphony has recently put its head above water with different performers on a Warner CD. Almost fifteen years ago Gabriel Chmura conducted the Fourth Symphony for Chandos.
The compact four-movement symphony occupies the opus number right after Weinberg’s Dawn. It is a work where Shostakovich rears up in belligerence or clamour, or both. Even so, it felt the obverse of Dawn – it has gravitas and introspection. The orchestra is a shade smaller. The piece ends magnificently, and is packed full of incident and unexpected turns of expression. Naturally the most public of movements was the finale, which in some measure felt bolted on. However, there is sufficient unexpected invention to hold the attention and leave the audience gasping at the close.
The use of smart-phones (on silent) was encouraged to allow access to online programme notes provided by the BBCPO in Manchester.
All in all, this was a signal event in the North-West’s musical calendar and in UK broadcasting; the concert was relayed live in Radio 3’s afternoon strand. The BBCPO and the conductor keep stirring the less frequented parts of the repertoire, and long may that continue. I note that they are giving us Miaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony in Bridgewater Hall on 1 February 2020 with Vassili Sinaisky. Such adventurous programming; do not forget the Fifth which they did in years gone by with the much-missed Edward Downes.