Mieczyslaw Weinberg was remembered and honoured with perfection at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weinberg Focus Day: Linus Roth (violin), José Gallardo (piano), Danjulo Ishizaka (cello), Ilona Domnich (soprano), Daniel Elphick (presenter). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.10.2019. (AK)

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg
together in Moscow

Full credit is due to the Wigmore Hall for facilitating what they described as a Weinberg Focus Day. In fact, their musical focus was on some of Weinberg’s compositions for solo violin and chamber music.

Three concerts (11:30am, 3.00pm and 7:30pm) provided a generous dose of music while a book launch added extra dimension to our understanding of Weinberg. At 5.00pm Daniel Elphick gave a detailed talk about his Music behind the Iron Curtain, Weinberg and his Polish Contemporaries, published in October 2019. The Focus Day and it’s programming was curated by the violinist and founder of the International Weinberg Society Linus Roth, while Elphick  wrote programme notes for all the works performed during the three concerts and he also introduced the compositions from the stage.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Warsaw on 8th December 1919. The forthcoming centenary of his birth might have prompted the Wigmore celebrations. However, Weinberg should be remembered and listened to not only as a birthday tribute but as a part of 20th-century mainstream repertoire. Weinberg’s compositions are numerous (reaching opus number 154) and of high quality.

The music speaks for itself but Weinberg’s resilience is also of note. In 1939 the Jewish Weinberg fled from Poland’s German occupation to Minsk (Belorussia) where he studied composition in the class of Zolotaryov for two years. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union Weinberg moved further to the East. He lived in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) until 1943 when, at the invitation of Shostakovich, he moved to Moscow where he remained until his death in 1996. In 1953, at the height of Soviet anti-Jewish propaganda, Weinberg was imprisoned with false accusations. Shostakovich campaigned to get Weinberg out of prison; he was released shortly after Stalin’s death.

Sadly I was unable to attend both the 11am concert (Weinberg Violin Sonata No.1 Op.12, 1943; Shostakovich Unfinished sonata for violin and piano, 1945; Weinberg Sonata No.1 for solo violin Op.82, 1964; Weinberg Largo for violin and piano, possibly early 1980s) as well as the 3pm concert (Weinberg Sonata No.2 for solo violin Op.95, 1967; Sonata for two violins Op.69, 1959; Jewish Songs Op.17, 1944). According to reliable sources, I missed some excellent music and some excellent performances. However, I attended the book launch and the evening concert.

Daniel Elphick’s book launch was specifically about his book but he gave a fair overview of Weinberg. Furthermore, the question/answer section allowed generous time about aspects which may or may not be in the book. Of the Polish-Jewish-Russian Weinberg, Elphick’s book focuses on the Polish aspect and analyses Weinberg’s string quartets alongside several Polish composers. Ironically, this Weinberg Focus Day did not include any of Weinberg’s string quartets and during his book launch Elphick did not talk about them. However, no doubt his book – which I have not yet read – gives valuable information about his subject. I am now inspired to read another Weinberg book too, that is David Fanning, Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom. Looking at chapter titles in Elphick’s and Fanning’s book, I conclude that the two books are likely to perfectly complement each other.    

The evening concert started with Weinberg’s Violin Sonata No.4 Op.39, 1947. On listening to Linus Roth’s violin playing it did not cross my mind that this is Roth’s third concert on the day and that he played in every piece on the programme (as he continued to do so for the rest of the evening). Roth played with self-effacing discipline, producing pure unforced sounds at all levels of dynamics. He also demonstrated breath-taking virtuosity in the fast perpetuum mobile section of the central movement. Pianist José Gallardo was a perfect collaborator, both in approach and ability. Their performance of Weinberg’s slow-fast-slow structure gave a transparent reading of the composer’s ideas, including substantial solo sections for each instrument and a witty, unexpected conclusion of rising plucked violin notes at the end of a slow lament for the violin.

Weinberg and Shostakovich were not only good friends but also neighbours in the Moscow apartment block where they both lived. They discussed their ideas, they played their music to each other. One should not consider Weinberg’s music without that of Shostakovich and vice versa. It was fully appropriate to include Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on poems by Alexander Blok Op.127, 1967 into the programme. (The English title elsewhere is shown as Seven Poems of Alexander Blok.) This vocal-instrumental suite was requested by Rostropovich and is scored for soprano, violin, cello and piano. The voice is constant, otherwise Shostakovich uses ensembles of two or three parts, using all four only in the finale. The first song is scored for soprano and cello, the second for soprano and piano, the third for soprano and violin, the fourth for soprano, cello and piano, the fifth for soprano, violin and piano, the sixth for soprano, violin and violoncello and finally all four parts participate in the finale. Dedicated to soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the premiere performance was given by Vishnevskaya, David Oistrakh violin, Rostropovich cello and Weinberg piano.

Soprano Ilona Domnich should be an ideal performer of the suite. Born in St Petersburg she is likely to be well-versed in Russian. She has the vocal quality for the part, seems to have been be born for the stage and is clearly fully involved with the emotions of the text. However, I had a hard time during her performance. To start with, the auditorium was far too dark to follow the song text comfortably. I also had problems with Domnich’s diction. My Russian is very basic but the lack of clarity might not have been caused by my poor Russian. I also felt that the interpretation of pitches was not fully matched between Domnich and the other performers.

To be sure of my observation, I checked with a distinguished colleague who is a musician as well as a linguist. This was her response: ‘I agree that Domnich’s diction in the Shostakovich was not clear but in the concert at 3.00 (which you missed) her singing, diction, voice and whole personality were entirely different in Weinberg’s Jewish Songs (1944). I have to confess that I was not too keen on the whole Shostakovich song cycle, and perhaps it just did not suit Domnich either.’

The evening concert concluded with Weinberg’s Piano Trio Op.24. The four-movement piece is very exciting as well as beautiful; all three players rose to the musical and considerable technical demands magnificently. Earlier I mentioned superb contributions by violinist Linus Roth and pianist José Gallardo. Cellist Danjulo Ishizaka also amazed me with his superb control of his instrument, musicality and self-effacing dedication. Fully at home in the Shostakovich cello part composed for Rostropovich, he was magnificent in the Weinberg trio too. I still cannot get into my ex-cellist head how Ishizaka managed the polyphonic solo cello part of the third movement so skilfully as if at least two cellists were playing. He, like his colleagues in the trio, focused on the music and allowed the audience to do the same. There were no theatrical gestures to indicate how inspired and great they were (which they were)

Weinberg was remembered and honoured with perfection.

Agnes Kory