Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919–1996)
Mieczysław Weinberg – to use the western spellings he was born with and in later years still preferred – had a remarkable life story, even by the standards of those many composers who were buffeted by the storms of mid-twentieth-century Europe.
He was born in Warsaw on 8 December 1919; his early musical experiences were as pianist and ensemble leader at a Jewish theatre where his father was composer and violinist. From the age of twelve he took piano lessons with Jozef Turczinski at the Warsaw Conservatory, and in later life his fluency as a sight-reader and score-reader was much vaunted; among his several fine recordings is one of his own Piano Quintet with the Borodin Quartet.
In 1939 Weinberg fled the Nazi occupation (in which his parents and sister Ester were murdered), in the first instance to Belorussia, where a Russian border-guard reportedly inscribed his documents with the stereotypically Jewish first name, Moisey, which became the one by which all official sources thereafter referred to him. In Minsk he attended the composition classes of Vasily Zolotaryov, one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s numerous pupils. With the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, he moved on to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Then at the invitation of Shostakovich, who had been impressed with the score of Weinberg’s First Symphony, he moved to Moscow, where he lived from 1943 until his death on 26 February 1996.
There were to be many more encounters with Shostakovich, including first performances as pianist and a famous recording of the duet version of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony alongside the composer. When Weinberg was imprisoned in February 1953, because of family connections at the height of Stalin’s ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ (in effect, anti-Semitic) campaign, Shostakovich took it upon himself to write to Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police, later to become the KGB), and Weinberg was released at the end of April, not long after the death of Stalin. Interestingly, throughout the succeeding years of the Khrushchev Thaw, of Brezhnev’s stagnation, Gorbachev’s glasnost and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Weinberg declined to exploit any image of victimhood, preferring to recall with pride that his music had been championed by many of the starriest musicians and conductors in his adopted country. Official recognition came in the form of honorary titles, in ascending order of prestige: ‘Honoured Artist of the Russian Republic’ in 1971, ‘People’s Artist of the Russian Republic’ in 1980, and ‘State Prize of the USSR’ in 1990.
Though never enrolled as one of Shostakovich’s official pupils, Weinberg readily acknowledged the inspiration: ‘I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood’. And Shostakovich lost no opportunity to commend Weinberg’s music to friends and colleagues. Both composers worked across a wide range of genres and in a gamut of styles from folk idioms (including, especially for Weinberg, Jewish ones) to twelve-note elements. Yet for all the unmistakable echoes of his revered role-model, Weinberg retained a higher degree of independence than many of his Soviet colleagues, distancing himself both from official academic conservatism and from the younger generation’s fervent embrace of formerly forbidden Western-style modernism. Both Shostakovich and Weinberg left an imposing body of symphonies and string quartets – in Weinberg’s case numbering 26 and seventeen, respectively. And both composed large numbers of songs – some twenty cycles in Shostakovich’s case, 30 in Weinberg’s.
Like Shostakovich’s, Weinberg’s literary interests were wide-ranging, and he set poetry not only of Russian/Soviet and Polish but also of Hungarian, Spanish and Japanese origin, as well as by Schiller and Shakespeare. His favourite topics of childlike innocence and its violation, of night, nature and consolation, are well represented on this disc.