WEINBERG Symphony No 17
The last years of Stalin’s rule were touch-and-go for all Soviet creative artists, fearful as they were of a re-run of the vicious anti-formalist tribulations. For the Jewish intelligentsia there was the added tension of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, which had been anticipated in January 1948 by the murder of Weinberg’s father-in-law, the great actor Solomon Mikhoels. Weinberg himself was tailed by the secret police during these years, until his eventual arrest and incarceration – thankfully short-lived – in February 1953. The music he composed in these years was of necessity mainly of a below-the-parapet, potboiler timidity: tuneful, folk-like and inoffensive.
All the same, the orchestral Suite of 1950 manages to exude a pale, winsome charm. Each of its five movements is catchy in a Light Programme way (which is to say a good deal more than merely competent). Weinberg’s background as a Warsaw theatre and café pianist evidently came in handy here, as it did in his music for circus orchestras at the same time and in his film scores for many years to come. The Waltz is a dead-ringer for its opposite numbers in Shostakovich’s ballets and suites, perhaps because of shared roots in Tchaikovsky. Likewise the Polka’s passing resemblance to his friend and mentor’s wartime song ‘Macpherson before his Execution’ is intriguing but may well be no more than coincidental. Whatever the case, the Suite certainly merits its first recording and the care that Vladimir Lande and his Siberian orchestra have lavished on it.
They have more to get their teeth into with the Symphony No 17, the first of the ‘War Trilogy’ Weinberg composed between 1982 and 1984 and whose overall title On the Threshold of War refers back to the motto of his second opera, The Madonna and the Soldier. There is nothing remotely opportunistic or sentimental about the style here. Rather the prevailing austerity – a throwback to the Requiem of 1967, whose themes and textures are also echoed – demands unremitting concentration from listener and orchestra alike. This the Siberians undoubtedly supply, and although ideally they could do with a larger string section and more refined wind and brass, Lande finds more momentum and urgency than does Fedoseyev in either of his recordings, as well as more bleakness and biting militancy – in short, more emotional truthfulness. All in all this ranks as one of the finest in Naxos’s admirable contributions to Weinberg’s recorded symphonic oeuvre.