Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Review: Antoni Wit, Rafał Bartmiński and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir: Symphony No. 8, 'Polish Flowers'

Review: Antoni Wit, Rafał Bartmiński and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir: Symphony No. 8, 'Polish Flowers'

         Weinberg's 8th Symphony, Op. 83, represents a bold leap forward from his previous work in the genre, anticipating his later choral symphonies and much of the later symphonic trilogy, Having crossed the threshold of war. Parallels can be drawn to Shostakovich's 13th & 14th, and Stravinsky's works such as Oedipus Rex and Les Noces as well as works by Benjamin Britten. The music is moving towards Weinberg's later style, with several key strands later taken up in the opera The Passenger. The 8th symphony sets texts by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim, and is set in ten movements. However, the link given for libretti in the liner notes is currently not working. According to Richard Whitehouse's notes, the poetry is 'at once a history and a critque of Poland over the period between the two world wars' - without the English translation available, I'll have to take his word for it. I also take issue with several mistakes in Whitehouse's notes - especially when he erroneously describes the work being in 'twelve movements', before immediately examining the movements of the symphony, of which there are most definitely ten:

1. Gust of spring
2. Children of Bałuty
3. In front of the old hut
4. There was an orchard
5. Elderberry
6. Lesson
7. Warsaw Dogs
8. Mother
9. Justice
10. The Vistula flows

         The stand-out moments for me are the middle movements, 5-7. It is here where the subject matter really becomes defiant in attitude, especially mvt. 7, subtitled 'Warsaw dogs', where the history of the Polish people in the inter-war period is compared to humanity's track-record with the mistreatment of dogs. Weinberg deploys the most striking music of the work here, a combination of the drama of Verdi's requiem put with the rhythm and attack of Stravinsky. Its easy to make the jump from this material to Weinberg's commemorative works a few years later, the Requiem, Op. 96, and The Passenger, Op. 97.

         I cannot fault the quality of the recording. The choir and orchestra are in perfect balance, with great contrast achieved between the spine-tingling staccato quiet moments and the earth-shattering fury of the stormy movements (listen out for choral glissandi!). The percussion in the mix is particularly fine. The performances from Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra are really very excellent, with a keen eye for precision. Rafał Bartmiński as tenor makes for a moving soloist, joined by Magdalena Dobrowolska, soprano, and Ewa Marciniec, alto.

       My only issue is in the more exposed choral episodes. Following the score, several of these are made purposefully difficult, with string glissandi underneath them and clashing pitches in the woodwind accompaniment. These are understandably difficult with regards to accurate pitching. But in the 9th movement, the unaccompanied choir sustain a chord only to be joined by the organ below. Unfortunately, these moments are occasionally wince-inducing. I could almost understand if this were a live recording. But with a recording session of four days, I find it hard to believe that there wasn't time to get these moments right in performance.

     Not that these moments detract from the whole product - they just blemish what would otherwise be an excellent recording. I still whole-heartedly recommend this CD, the latest in a series released from Naxos. It certainly represents fantastic value for money - I paid less than £6 in my local CD shop - though that was admittedly with a student discount! For £6, you'd be hard-pushed to get a brand new Weinberg recording of such high quality.

         [The only previous recording I had of Symphony 8 was a terrible example of a poor vinyl to MP3 transfer (I think this youtube upload is from the same recording, though a better transfer than my own - but with no record of performers). As such, this new Naxos CD was a delight to behold.]

P.s. - here's a link to another review of the same album. Link (Rob Barnett,


N.B. - I'll update this post if the libretti link starts working, and once I've listened to the CD a few more times, with score.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Symphony No. 1: Recordings

As promised, here's a brief review of the available recordings of Weinberg's Symphony No. 1.

Alexander Titov and the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra
(coupled with the Cello Concerto, Op. 43)

   This is the recording that was featured in the Youtube links in my previous post. It suffers from a lack of precision, which does not help with promoting rarely heard works. That said, it is a good effort, and the recording of the Cello Concerto with Dmitry Khrychov as soloist is worth a listen. To my ears the recording sounds very close and often very raw in sound, unsuited to some of the more tender moments in this symphony.  Occasionally, it also suffers from distractingly-off tuning (for the most obvious example, see the Clarinet entry twenty seconds into the beginning).

Thord Svedlund and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

(Coupled with Symphony No. 7, Op. 81).

   The series of Chandos Weinberg recordings has generally been excellent, aside from a few criticisms of short running times on some of the other discs - a problem amply compensated with this release. Svedlund's performance easily beats Titov's previous interpretation of the work, partly because of the excellent choice of tempi in comparison, but also because of the gloriously colourful and warm quality of the recording itself. The solo voices in this recording are heard in great clarity, yet the darker moments still pack the punch they need. (The 7th symphony comes across as somewhat dry in comparison, and this recording struggles to compare with Rudolf Barshai's emotionally cold and brutal interpretation on a previous Olympia release).

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Focus: Symphony No. 1, Op. 10

I'm starting a feature which I'll keep going from now on: focus articles on particular Weinberg pieces. In these, I'll write about the background and context to the music, before giving a quick overview of each movement with video links to listen.

I'll start at the beginning:

Symphony No. 1, Op. 10.

   The first symphony was written in 1942, and proved to be a life-changing work for Weinberg. The 22-year old composer had only been living in the USSR for a couple of years, having fled his native Poland at the outbreak of WWII. He briefly settled in Minsk, but was forced to flee once-more when the German army invaded in 1941. He settled in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and quickly ingratiated himself within the burgeoning musical community there. A great number of musicians from Leningrad had resettled in Tashkent following the German advance, including several of the Conservatoire staff members. Weinberg soon began working with several of the key musical figures there, collaborating on an opera, 'The Sword of Uzbekistan', as well as producing two operettas and a ballet of his own. All of these scores are now believed to be lost, but we do know that they were of a patriotic character. Having been accepted into the conservatoire at Minsk with all fees provided for by the state, Weinberg fully embraced his position as a recognised composer of the USSR. Combined with the wartime Patriotic fervour, it was natural that Weinberg would write works that attempted to rally National spirit. It is perhaps for this reason that when Weinberg came to write his First Symphony, he dedicated it to the Red Army, the force that had accepted him into the USSR in 1939.
   The life-changing aspect of the work came in its immediate reception, which in turn led to an introduction that would change Weinberg forever. Weinberg described the first time he encountered Shostakovich's music in 1940 'as if a thousand electrical charges were piercing me'. He revered Shostakovich to such an extent that he arranged for a copy of the First Symphony to be sent to him in Moscow, which left such a strong impression on Shostakovich that a permit was quickly arranged for Weinberg to resettle in the capital. (Reports vary about who delivered the score to Shostakovich - either Solomon Mikhoels, Weinberg's father-in-law, or Yury Levitin, another young composer who remained a close friend to Weinberg).

First Movement

The opening movement features a distinctive theme, which is subjected to some rather academic developments. Whether this leaves the movement as over-homogenized or simply an organic whole (in the best Symphonic tradition) is a matter for debate.
   Following the initial exposition and exploration of the theme, a more sedate Woodwind section begins at Figure 14 in the score. With a searching character, snatches of the theme bring us back to the matter at hand, before lush strings accompany the winds, dragging the theme back to the forefront of the music. A build-up leads us to yet more development, combining elements of the second section with the opening theme. As momentum increases, the motifs swirl together, moving towards a dark and oppressive mood at Figure 36. This culminates at the Larghetto just before Fig. 39, which represents the tipping point of the movement. Here, bassoon solo leads to violin solo with a sparse woodwind accompaniment in a restatement of material from the second section. Again, Weinberg builds momentum with quicker figuration and further exploration of the theme at Fig. 42. This restatement starts the conclusion, with drawn out fragments ending with string pizzicato chords quitely confirming a minor tonality, with funereal Timpani faintly underneath.

Second Movement
   The dance-like opening of this movement comes as a welcome relief from the brooding first movement, taking its form as a slow waltz which maintains the searching mood. Bare pizzicato strings begin before the Woodwind take control, only to be joined by the warm strings once-more. An uncertain Cor Anglais solo at Fig. 53 takes the music away from the comforting major centre of the opening into a yearning strings-heavy theme. One particularly beautiful moment to listen out for is at Fig. 58, where five violin solos are accompanied by lulling chords on the harp. The movement returns to the safe-feeling D major with which it began, closing with a gentle Horn, timp and Bass clarinet chord.

Third Movement

A striking Timpani opening introduces the winding theme on Clarinet that lays the foundation for this spritely Scherzo. The meandering line is briefly developed before the threat of menace reemerges in the brass. The early influence of Shostakovich can be heard in the heavy use of percussion in this movement - reminiscent at times of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Weinberg contrasts the Timpani from the opening with jagged String lines leading to a remarkable section at Fig. 76 marked 'Allegretto grazioso'. Following several woodwind lines, the strings bring the gathered energy almost to a halt, with teasing pauses and reaching ascending phrases. An accelerando reintroduces the panic that has been accruing throughout the piece, now turning into a hectic yearning. The excitement building here is turn apart from interjections from the timpani, which is transformed into an incessant bass drum, booming away up until the final flourish which concludes the movement.

Fourth Movement

In my opinion, this is the most successful movement of the symphony, where the searching character that has been so prominent before is brought right to the forefront in a way which surpasses mere academic thematic development. Meandering movement pervades the lines, contrasted with Cantabile sections and imitative exchange between sections. Incessant rhythmic pulses introduce an sense of inevitability as the work draws to a close, as well as the militaristic associations they bring. Fig. 96 brings a fantastic break, where the rhythmic energy is continued by isolated pockets of the orchestra, with woodwind, brass and snare drum exchanging remarks. Fig. 99 brings a fugue-esque counterpoint in the woodwind, heralding a slow return to the opening material, with oppressive cadences in the timpani repeated over and over, reviving the timpani motif from the previous movement. The timpani brings the final ending motif, the seemingly endless repetition of D - G which draws the work to a close.


I hope my listening notes will be of some interest to you.

I'll write a post in a few days with recommended recordings of the work.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Quartet No. 2

I'm currently poring over the score for Weinberg's second String Quartet (in both its original and revised versions!), ready for a planned 'reconstruction' performance at some point in the future.

Here's a video with the Quatuor Danel playing the final movement of the revised version, just to give a taste of what I'm spending my time on at the moment.

From the Quatuor Danel CD 'String Quartets Vol. 6', on the CPO label.
Link to CPO website

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Monday, 14 January 2013

2013 Weinberg performances

I'm trying to put together a list of Weinberg performances in 2013 - I'm currently restricting it to UK only (though I may write a post detailing some further afield). Having rooted around, I admittedly can't find very many. If anyone knows any more, or if you have an event you would like me to promote, please don't hesitate to get in contact (via email, or by commenting on this post).

Sunday 10th March, 19:30, Arc Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London
Sonata for clarinet and piano Op. 28
Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes (UK première)
Sonata Movement in D minor (completed by David Louie)
Ben Haim
Piano Quartet (UK première)
About this concert
The ARC Ensemble enjoys a flourishing reputation for its performances of the music lost or marginalized in the tumult of the 20th century’s conflicts. The ensemble’s members are all senior faculty members of Canada’s Royal Conservatory and among the most outstanding instrumentalists in the country. Their next recording is devoted to the chamber music of the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim.'

Thursday 18th April, 13:10, Quatuor Danel - Martin Harris Centre, Manchester 
        'Weinberg Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 69
        Weinberg Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 73
        Weinberg Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 6, Op. 136bis
        With Michelle Assay- Piano
Three fine chamber works by Mieczysław Weinberg – his knotty two-violin sonata, the exhilarating sixth piano sonata, and the last of his six violin and piano sonatas. The Danels’ violin virtuosi are joined by Weinberg specialist Michelle Assay.'

Friday 19th April, 19:30, Quatuor Danel - Martin Harris Centre, Manchester
'Weinberg Quartet No. 8, Op. 66
       Weinberg Quartet No. 16, Op. 130
       Weinberg Piano Trio, Op. 24
       With David Fanning- Piano
       The Quatuor Danel concludes its season with two of the highlights of the Weinberg quartet cycle, the gentle eighth and the subtle and exploratory sixteenth. The university’s Professor David Fanning, Weinberg’s biographer, joins the ensemble for the magnificent Piano Trio.'

If anyone has any details about any UK performances, please let me know and I'll update this post.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Podcast interview with Alison Brewster Franzetti

A quick link to a Naxos promotional 'e-card' for the Grand Piano series featuring Alison Brewster Franzetti, with all of Weinberg's piano works recorded (some for the first time). As well as containing some good information, it also includes a lengthy podcast interview, which is interesting if only for showing us Franzetti's thinking behind the series.

Link for the Weinberg piano 'e-card'

(N.B. - I was wincing throughout the interview every time that they pronounced Weinberg's name with a soft 'W' - it's definitely with a hard 'V' sound!)

The first three volumes of the series are widely available, and the final volume will be released at the beginning of February - see the previous post on upcoming releases.

'Upcoming Releases' post

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A film from long ago

Weinberg composed a large number of scores for films, nearly 40 in total. The money he earned from his film scores gave him the freedom to compose, instead of the teaching posts that other composers usually had to accept in order to make money.

The very earliest example of Weinberg's film work is from 1936, with the Polish film 'Fredek uszczesliwia swiat' ('Freddy makes the world happy'). The film's score shows an already remarkable prowess for film scoring, even at the age of 16. Happily for us, the entire film is available on youtube (links below).

 The plot revolves around the engineer Fredek, who invents the video telephone only to destroy it once he sees his girlfriend being affectionate with another man while using it. After several episodes where Fredek's friends try to cheer him up, all is resolved when it turns out that the man he saw was only his girlfriend's brother.

   Apart from the opening titles and a morning song at the beginning, the music consists of a few episodes to illustrate the action onscreen (with a few cabaret songs for good measure). Watch the film and bear in mind that this was written after Weinberg's first opus-numbered work, 'Lullaby' for piano (in 1935), but that it also precedes his subsequent output entirely. All the more remarkable that it is uploaded in full on youtube, for us to enjoy!

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four
Part five
Part six
Part seven

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Upcoming releases

The end of January brings two new Weinberg releases, the first the conclusion of Grand Piano's four-volume set of complete piano works, and the other a new installment in the Naxos series of Weinberg symphonies.

The new Naxos CD will feature Weinberg's 8th Symphony, 'Flowers of Poland' (Translated as 'Polish Flowers' on the CD cover), conducted by Antoni Wit with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Hopefully this will continue the excellent quality of Naxos' previous two releases of Weinberg symphonies, Nos. 19 & 6.

The Grand Piano CD sees the conclusion of Alison Brewster Franzetti's cycle of Weinberg's complete piano works, with sonatas 3, 5 & 6 and 'Two fugues', a shorter work for a piano student. The previous three volumes have provided masterful performances, and I'm sure this final volume will not fail to disappoint.

Both albums have a release date of February 2013, but lists them both as available from the 28th Jan. Album reviews to follow upon release.

Naxos website for the Symphony recording

Naxos website for the Piano works volume 4 recording

Monday, 7 January 2013

Presentation at the RMA research students' conference in Southampton

Last Friday (04/01/13), I presented at the RMA research students' conference in Southampton, with a paper entitled 'Revision, a case study: Mieczysław Weinberg'. Below is the abstract for my paper.

I extend many thanks to all who came to listen and for their thought-provoking comments and questions.


'The many instances of composers revising their previous works later on in life raise questions of authenticity, intervention and intention, as well as sheer craft. Such delicate topics may be difficult to approach, especially when there is little or no documentation of motivation, as in the case of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), a Polish-Jewish composer who lived and worked for most of his life in Moscow and whose posthumous reputation has dramatically advanced. Towards the end of his life, Weinberg revised many of his early works, especially his string quartets, in some cases making corrections and minor amendments, in others making substantial revisions, adding movements, and even rescoring for different forces. The significance of such revisions is vital to an understanding of Weinberg’s development as a composer, not least because many of his earliest works are now known to us only in their later manifestations. In this paper, I shall give examples of Weinberg’s revisions and explore the wide-reaching questions they raise. '

Sunday, 6 January 2013

A researcher's blog on the life & music of Mieczysław Weinberg

My name is Daniel Elphick and I am a PhD student at the University of Manchester, researching the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. This blog serves as a forum to promote Weinberg's music, post links to Weinberg-related media and sites, to give news on upcoming releases and concerts and to inform readers on the progress of my own work.

My research focuses specifically on Weinberg's seventeen string quartets, but I will also be posting about his wider output and biographical information.

If you have any questions, suggestions or queries, please contact me at: