Thursday 16 November 2017

In the wake of oppression: Weinberg and Prokofiev's fifth symphonies

Weinberg, Prokofiev - Sinfonia Iuventus - Warner Classics
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Sergei Prokofiev Fifth Symphonies; Sinfonia Iuventus, Gabriel Chmura; Warner Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 10 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Powerful performances from this young Polish orchestra of two symphonies written in the wake of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony

Writing symphonies was a dangerous business in the Soviet Union. After the attacks on Shostakovich's music and the withdrawal of his Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich trod a fine line in his subsequent works and other composers took similar care. On this Warner Classics disc from the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus conducted by Gabriel Chmura we have symphonies by two of Shostakovich's contemporaries, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Sergei Prokofiev.

Polish-born Weinberg fled Poland in 1939 and ended up in Soviet Russia where he would become a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. Weinberg's music has been undergoing something of a Renaissance recently and this disc gives a welcome opportunity to hear Weinberg's Symphony No. 5. The work was premiered in 1962 and was a direct response of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 which only received its premiere in 1961 following the composer's withdrawal of the work in 1936. Shostakovich's symphony was premiered by Kiril Kondrashin, and it was to Kondrashin that Weinberg dedicated his Symphony No. 5. Weinberg's music was not formally banned, but it was entirely ignored by the Soviet establishment. Weinberg's father-in-law was assassinated in 1948, and Weinberg himself arrested in 1953 and was only saved by Stalin's death.

Weinberg writes for a large symphony orchestra, creating a sombre and tragic four movement work. a substantial piece lasting 45 minutes. This is recognisably music from the orbit of Shostakovich, but with its own distinct identity. The opening 'Allegro moderato' is intense and restless, a long movement which reaches a rather disturbing conclusion, this is intentionally not comfortable music. The 'Adagio sostenuto' is elegiac but sombre, a vein of pessimism underlying its lyricism. The third movement lacks the sardonic bite of some of Shostakovich's movements in a similar vein, but again the lyricism has an underlying edge to it. The final movement makes a complete break with the Shostakovich model, instead of a fast tempo we have 'Andantino' and things open with remarkable transparency and delicacy. This is a long movement which seems to hint at a narrative, which perhaps constantly eludes the listener.

Prokofiev responded to the treatment of Shostakovich by refraining from writing symphonies at all, there is a gap of 14 years between his fourth symphony of 1930 and his fifth of 1944. Whilst Shostakovich wrote heroic and tragic symphonies at the period, responding to the war, Prokofiev entirely turned away and Symphony No. 5 is a remarkably serene, lyrical work. Whilst it often seems to revert to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, bypassing the intense drama of his later symphonies, Gabriel Chmura and the orchestra bring out the more tragic and disturbing undertones, so that though there is melodic lyricism there is something else as well.

The orchestra consists of graduates and students of music schools who are under 30, and under Gabriel Chmura they bring a remarkable maturity to both these works. Two large-scale pieces which receive powerful performances. Both symphonies are well worth hearing, but for me it is the remarkably intense and sombre Weinberg which makes this disc essential listening.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) - Symphony No. 5 in F minor, OP.76 (1962) [45.16]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, OP. 100 (1944) [45.39]
Sinfonia Iuventus
Gabriel Chmura
Recorded at the Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio, Polish Radio, Warsaw, 20-23 February 2017
WARNER CLASSICS 01902 9 587127 1 3 2CDs [45.16, 45.39]
Available from Amazon.

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