Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Weinberg String Quartet No. 16, Op. 130 - Programme Note

Here's the programme note that I provided for the Quatuor Danel's concert at the Manchester Grammar School, 27/02/15:

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
Quartet No. 16, Op. 130

I. Allegro
II. Allegro
III. Lento
IV. Moderato

The last time Weinberg saw his younger sister, Ester, she was limping into the distance, heading back to their parents’ house. In September 1939, the two siblings had fled from the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, heading east towards the USSR. Ester soon turned back because her shoes hurt her feet. Weinberg continued alone, and went on to reach the safety of the USSR. His parents and sister were later murdered in the holocaust.
            When Weinberg came to write his Sixteenth Quartet in 1981, he dedicated it to the memory of his sister, who would have turned sixty that year. It features a marked return to his Jewish heritage, as well as a new renewed interest in Bartók. The first movement opens with a striking passage for first violin and the lower voices give a chorale-like accompaniment that recurs throughout. The viola gives the second theme, with emphasised minor inflections. A process of thematic ‘darkening’ threatens to disintegrate the development section, an agitated feeling that lingers into the recapitulation. Even towards the movement’s close, ‘darkened’ versions of both themes provide a fractured sense of unease.
            A contorted scherzo and trio is presented in the second movement, with a character reminiscent of Bartók’s late quartets. The scherzo consists almost entirely of Weinberg’s signature musical motif, alternating fourths, with staggered entries evoking a clockwork mechanism. Towards the scherzo’s close, a contrasting lyrical theme with Lombard rhythms is given in the first violin. The trio section that follows is comparatively restrained and nostalgic. A ghost-like quality is sustained by an unusually wispy articulation - sul tasto, senza vibrato. The scherzo repeat interrupts this moment of tranquility, reintroducing the clock-like ticking from the movement’s opening.
            Weinberg’s mastery for solo string writing is deployed to full effect in the third movement. The first violin opens with a mournful singing line. The cello enters in a fugato-like texture, before the remaining two parts join also. A brief climax is reached before the procedure is repeated, with the first violin and cello starting once more. The viola and second violin enter in a similar manner, though with no climactic trajectory the second time round. A sombre sense of moral outrage is suggested during the movement, only to ebb away towards its close.
            The finale provides an uneven conclusion and brings Jewish thematic elements to the centre of attention. It opens with a sprightly waltz, together with an ‘Oom-pah-pah’ accompaniment. The waltz theme reaches a screaming climax, before the cello harks back to the second movement’s Lombard rhythm. The waltz and Lombard themes are juxtaposed together, before the music subsides to leave just the first violin – harking back to the beginning of the piece. A series of slow alternating chords brings the work to a gentle yet uneasy close.  
Daniel Elphick

The performance was a great success - the programme included Mendelssohn's Sixth Quartet (also dedicated to the memory of his sister) - and Schubert's Death and the Maiden - a rather nifty bit of programming!

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