Weinberg Sinfonietta No 1 Op 41; Symphony No 5

Another dark musical view of life in Stalin’s Russia from a friend of Shostakovich

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Weinberg Sinfonietta No 1 Op 41; Symphony No 5

  • Symphony No. 5
  • Sinfonietta No 1

Mieczyslaw (or Moisey) Samuilovich Weinberg (or Vainberg) was born in Poland in 1919, but emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1939. He thereby avoided the fate of his Jewish relatives who remained in Warsaw, but in 1953 he fell foul of the repressive Russian authorities and may only have been saved from death in prison by the intervention of Shostakovich, a close friend. The younger Weinberg would invariably show his compositions to Shostakovich, but his own career continued for 20 years after his mentor’s death. Weinberg himself died in 1996, leaving a substantial catalogue of works including more than 20 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and a mass of other compositions from operas to piano sonatas.

What looks like a reasonable cross-section of that catalogue has been issued on disc, and quite a few recordings (mainly on Olympia) have been welcomed in Gramophone in recent years. Nevertheless, the music is new to me, and I must admit to mixed feelings about the relatively early pair of works with which Chandos launch this series. The Sinfonietta (1948) seems the stronger piece, with energetic folk-like materials whose presentation benefits from some striking rhythmic displacements. Balancing this, the slower music reveals an attractive lyric sensibility allied to a commendable concern not to let formal symmetries become too predictable.

At 45 minutes, the four-movement Symphony No 5 (1962) is twice the length of the Sinfonietta, and seems too expansive for its own good. It was apparently inspired by the still longer but far less short-winded Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich, and debts to the master are abundant, though Weinberg’s ending conveys ironic wistfulness rather than bitter withdrawal or exhausted acceptance. On this evidence, then, Weinberg’s symphonic music lacks the epic forcefulness and emotional intensity of Shostakovich or Prokofiev at their best, and the longer movements risk rhythmic monotony even when the material itself is attractive and inventively orchestrated. These are competent and well-recorded performances, however, and the music should certainly appeal to listeners curious about how so many composers were able to live, work and – in some respects – flourish during the Soviet years.

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