WEINBERG Chamber Symphonies. Piano Quintet
In 1988 Mieczysaw Weinberg claimed he started using the term ‘chamber symphony’ because he ‘didn’t want to continue the sequence of high numbers (after Symphony No 20)’ but that the first two – completed in 1987 – differed ‘neither in length nor in character from the [chamber-orchestral] Second, Seventh or Tenth Symphonies’. All are scored for strings with the odd extra: timpani in No 2; clarinet and triangle in the then unwritten No 4 of 1992. But Symphony No 20 was composed in 1988 after the first two chamber symphonies and the Third (1991) and Fourth (1992) were coeval with Symphony No 21, Kaddish, and succeeded by the unfinished No 22 (1993 94).
So far, so disingenuous; many composers fib. Weinberg’s mentor, Shostakovich, was a master of the art, as were – to pluck two names at random – Sibelius and Villa-Lobos. Was Weinberg distracting people’s attention from these two chamber symphonies being reworkings of his unpublished Second and Third String Quartets (1940 and 1944 respectively)? The First Quartet had been reworked – as a quartet – in 1986 as Op 141. In the end, he fashioned new works from the old material by fusing convincingly transcription, revision and recomposition, as again with Chamber Symphony No 3, a reworking of the Fifth Quartet (1945). Chamber Symphony No 4, conducted here with breathtaking intensity by Mirga GraΩinyte˙-Tyla, is wholly new and a web of self-quotations from earlier works.
Kremerata Baltica have a deal of experience in playing both Weinberg and Shostakovich, and understand how to make the two composers’ music sound distinct. The playing by the orchestra and soloists is compelling and vivid, tempos on the swift side on the whole (and none the worse for that). Those possessing Svedlund’s pioneering accounts (issued variously by Olympia, Alto – nla – and Chandos) or Rachlevsky’s (who omitted No 2) can rest content with those finely achieved accounts; likewise Bashmet’s No 1. However, this new set, directed mostly by Gidon Kremer, is a cut above these forebears in terms of expressive version, virtuosity of performance and superb recorded sound. This is the survey to have, complete on two discs, and you get a fine transcription (for piano, percussion and strings) of Weinberg’s 1944 Piano Quintet, providing a touchstone back to the wartime composer. Strongly recommended.