WEINBERG Symphony No 20. Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Russian composers, Alfred Schnittke being the obvious exception, have largely been immune from the so-called ‘Curse of the Ninth’. Shostakovich checked out leaving 15 symphonies and here’s the premiere recording of the last numbered symphony, No 20, by his friend Mieczysław Weinberg (who called his actual last symphony Kaddish).
And I’m pleased it’s not only me. Even David Fanning, Weinberg connoisseur and booklet-note annotator, writes of ‘a challenging work the character of which is exceptionally hard to fathom’, and this is certainly inscrutable stuff; music that tells listeners to get off its back. At a certain level, Weinberg’s five-movement structure is deeply old-school, especially for a symphony written in 1988: a central block consisting of an intermezzo encased by two scherzos is itself surrounded by a pair of slow movements, while nothing about his gestural vocabulary will frighten any horses. The scherzos come with all those trademark Mahler/Shostakovich fingerprints – and might in the opening moments the ominous throb of two clarinets subliminally refer back to the equivalent section of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony?
Thord Svedlund could have come up with literal answers but chooses instead to push further inside the riddles. Little is stated explicitly. Harmonies that instinct hears as directional instead fold inwards, mirrored by Weinberg’s curiously contained orchestration, as if the whole symphony has been underscored by a soft pedal. Svedlund keeps the pacing taut, the dynamics squeezed and turns Weinberg’s parting mystery – an incongruous blare of quasi-conquering C major – into a proper head-scratcher. His 1948 Cello Concerto ticks all the boxes you’d expect of a mid-century Russian cello concerto: stuffed with folk references, rondo finale, written for Rostropovich etc. But it’s as pedestrian as the 20th is odd.