Mieczysław Weinberg: Concertos

Jonhäll, Claesson, Gunnarsson; Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra/Thorvaldsson (Chandos CHSA5064)

27 July 2008 3.5 stars

Weinberg ConcertosWe can never measure the precise manner and extent to which Stalin's oppressive attitude to the arts in the Soviet Union actually shaped each of the affected artists' particular creative voices. The differences between the ideas, structures, and execution of Mieczysław Weinberg's music from before and from after the post-Stalin relaxation of Communist Party strictures, where a more prevalent feeling of introversion, of misgiving, and of originality is found in the later works, of course describes a common aesthetic arc in Soviet art.

We will never know in the case of Weinberg, or in that of other Soviet artists, precisely what has been lost as a result of their early experiences of a tyrannical regime, but the suggestions of creative nuance found in Weinberg's later works certainly point towards the lost potential of this artist at least.

This new Chandos release, which collects together four concertante works from across Weinberg's career, is a good demonstration of the composer's occasionally cloying, occasionally moving voice. The comparatively early Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, the only work on the disc to come from the harsh period before Stalin's death in 1953, is overtly tuneful, warm and passionate. That this passion comes across as largely insincere and facile is not helped by the mawkish playing in the two outer movements from the soloist, Claes Gunnarsson. The sentimentality the conductor (Thord Svedlund) brings to the performance adds to the trite effect. Gunnarsson plays with an exaggerated and syrupy vibrato, and never misses an opportunity to turgidly stretch a note over the bar line before resolution.

The performance does start off well, with Svedlund bringing the type of detached warmth to the slow introduction that suggests the sort of circular, sustained textures of Gorecki's third symphony. Things dip when the movement finally get going though; the surfeit of folk rhythms and slushy tunes the composer creates fail, in this performance at least, to generate much in the way of tension or productive dialogue between soloist and group. Momentum is lacking also. Despite the occasional hints we get of Weinberg's keen ear for generating original orchestral colours, and for creating moments of tonal interest (the repetition of the accented chromatic suspension in the flute against the main theme in the finale for example), the work clearly fails to impress.

The first and second flute concertos show a marked improvement over the cello piece. There is a good urgency to the playing of the second concerto's first movement (this work is placed first of the two on the disc), with the constantly evolving material feeling supple and captivating in Svedlund's hands. The conductor brings out every little detail of the score here, and the flute playing is very effective; Anders Jonhäll fluidly alternates between sweet and spiky manners. The comparative originality of this first movement becomes firmly apparent with the sudden emergence of a piquant fugato in place of a development section, and the freedom with which the composer runs with some of the ideas presented there speaks clearly of an invigorated voice. The movement builds to a complex end, taking in everything from veiled quotations of Bach, to tortured and anguished rises and falls that skilfully move through the earlier material quite economically. A very enticing sense of pent-up tension pervades the long note, high-lying flute part of the rhapsodic slow movement, and the faux-naïve finale, where the conductor creates a very delicate sound picture of troubled culmination, adds to the ambiguous, conflicted feel of the work.

The first flute concerto, like the second, presents a perfectly Russian mix of mordancy and elegiac nostalgia. The form and feel is essentially neo-classical, but Weinberg enhances that framework with sarcastic gestures, original ideas, and unusual formal trappings. This concerto deals much more in dance-forms and rhythms than its successor, with the two outer movements being essentially rondo-variation structures that derive much play out of the giddy rhythms contained in the main thematic material. The flute playing is again of a very high standard – Jonhäll is always buoyant and capricious when he needs to be – and the orchestra again provide a sympathetic, intelligent accompaniment. The resigned expressivity of the slow movement is especially effective, and the burnished tones the conductor produces from the orchestra mean the tolling chords they sound always blend well with the arabesques of the soloist.

Best of all is the Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, which operates from the same caustic and melancholic neo-classicism as the flute works, yet comes across as more fluid and more aesthetically extended than either. There is a terrific diversity to the clarinet writing, with the soloist (Urban Claesson) being required to move regularly between registers, modes of attack and articulation, and patterns of phrasing. The austere first movement contains plenty of moments for the string section to stab the listener with piercing salvos, and the soloist rides atop this coruscating edifice of orchestral sound with supremely confident playing that makes a virtue of the inconstancy of the line. The open approach to form displayed in this work is never more at hand than in the clarinet writing, and Claesson leads the performance with agile and spirited playing. He tackles every trill and every tricky arpeggio with the same confidence. His commitment is met by that of the orchestra and conductor, who produce energetic and expressive playing that supports and intercedes with the clarinet well. The undulating, tonally unstable theme of the slow movement, for instance, is tensely given by the strings, before the clarinet takes it up and decorates it quite unpredictably, with sensitive, driving support being given by the ensemble. The finale, with its characteristic rushing theme, builds to an exciting pitch, and the performance and work are crowned with a brilliantly conceived and well-executed cadenza.

After a shaky start, the disc comes into its own with this vividly performed closing concerto.

By Stephen Graham