Monday 18 April 2022

Exploring Weinberg: two works for cello & orchestra alongside the last Chamber Symphony No. 4 in a lovely disc from French ensemble Les Metamorphoses & cellist Pieter Wispelwey

Weinberg: Cello Concertino, Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, Chamber Symphony No. 4; Peter Wispelwey, Jean-Michel Charlier, Les Metamorphoses, Raphael Feye; Evil Penguin

Weinberg: Cello Concertino, Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, Chamber Symphony No. 4; Pieter Wispelwey, Jean-Michel Charlier, Les Metamorphoses, Raphael Feye; Evil Penguin
Reviewed 12 April 2022,

Weinberg's recently discovered Cello Concertino alongside two other smaller orchestral works in performances are vividly present and full of warmth and intensity

We still seem to be discovering Mieczyslaw Weinberg, both the man and his music; for this new disc from Evil Penguin,  the French ensemble Les Metamorphoses and conductor Raphael Feye are joined by Pieter Wispelwey (cello) and Jean-Michel Charlier (clarinet) for three of Weinberg's smaller orchestral works, the Cello Concertino Op. 43 bis, the Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra Op.52 and the Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153.

Despite the vicissitudes of his life, Weinberg was prolific; there are over 190 opus number and many of these works are unexplored or at best under-explored. And we are still discovering things too. His Cello Concertino was found among the papers of Russian musicologist Manashir Yakubov; there had previously been no mention of it in any of the composer’s catalogue or documents. It was written in 1948, at a dark time for Weinberg; like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he had been publicly chastised and had to apologise to the Soviet authorities, but also his father-in-law had been murdered on Stalin's orders. Chilling times.

Yet he wrote this lovely four-movement concerto, which seems to be some sort of preparation work for the later Cello Concerto (from the same year). All the themes and the structures are there, yet the Concertino is its own work and we would love to have the composer's thoughts on it. 

Despite the chilling times it was written in, the opening Adagio is positively lovely; true it is a lament, but the melody is simply stunning. It unfolds constantly and you never want it to end. The second movement, Moderato espressivo evidently uses Jewish melodies, busy over a rhythmic accompaniment, there is a bitter-sweet quality to the music for all its catchiness. The Allegro Vivace has a sonata form structure, but what you notice is the sense of vigorous dance to the music, leading to a rather uncompromising cadenza for the cello.Finally, an intense, thoughtful Adagio with a haunting melody where the whole reminds you of Weinberg's friend and mentor Shostakovich.

Next comes the Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, written a few years later when life was still difficult. The idea behind the fantasy was to play safe, writing folk-inspired works and shorter character pieces. Weinberg's fantasy has something of this as it uses Polish melodies, but it as if he could not quite play the game and the work is more complex than it should have been. Premiered in 1954, in a version for cello and piano, there is no record of an orchestral version in the composer's lifetime. A single-movement work, it is in multiple sections. It opens with a quite romantic sounding orchestral introduction leading to a folk-inspired melody with a melancholic tinge. More robust, vigorous dance-like material follows then energy drops and the orchestration becomes more transparent, but the interest is still highly stimulated. A strong yet melancholic cadenza leads back into the opening melody, presented rather gently and finally evaporating.

Finally, comes Weinberg's last completed work, his Chamber Symphony No. 4, written in 1992 for string orchestra with obligato clarinet part (and a tiny, tiny triangle part). It is a self-reflexive work, including several self-quotations, including from his opera The Portrait, Symphony no. 17, and the Cello Concerto.

The jump in time is apparent from the more austere textures and the spiky harmonies, but the voice is clearly still Weinberg. Finally a seductive, klezmer-like clarinet enters supported by austere string textures. The second movement is fast and busy, vivid yet not a concerto the clarinet is part of the whole. Energy and intensity increases, and Weinberg really twists the knife here. but things unwind quickly and we have a series of intense but spare dialogues for solo clarinet, solo violin and solo cello. Eventually we reach a powerful climax but this movement remains spare an intense. The final movement begins with a clarinet theme as if from a distance, again folk-ish in style. This is never quite klezmer, the atmosphere remains bleak at austere, with the clarinet reaching moments of piercing intensity, before the movement evaporates.

This is a terrific disc, providing a tantalising picture of a composer about whom we still know so little. How this music and his life fits together, how he thought of the music. But the performances are vividly present and full of warmth and intensity. There is a vein of melancholy underlying even the most beautiful moments and all three works warrant repeated listening.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) - Cello Concertino Op. 43 bis (1948)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg - Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra Op. 52 (1953)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg - Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 (1992)
Peter Wispelwey (cello)
Jean-Michel Charlier (clarinet)
Les Metamorphose
Raphael Feye (conductor)
Recorded from June 28 to July 1, 2021 at MC De Bijloke, Ghent, Belgium.

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