Tonight’s program features music by Dmitri Shostakovich, whose entire career was conducted within the confines of the Soviet Union. Opening each half is a work by a close friend of Shostakovich. First we hear music by the lesser-known Moisey Weinberg, a confidante and devotee of Shostakovich from the 1940s on. The second half begins with a brilliant early work by Benjamin Britten. Shostakovich met Britten in 1960, and later praised “the strength and sincerity of his talent, its surface simplicity and the intensity of its emotional effect.” The two composers enjoyed a warm relationship that transcended the Cold War and lasted until death.
Concertino for Violin and Strings, Opus 42 Moisey Weinberg (1919-1996)
That his name takes various forms may have something to do with his present obscurity in this part of the world. The first name may appear as Moisey or Mieczysław; the last may be spelled Weinberg, Vainberg or Vaynberg. Whatever the orthography, Moisey Weinberg was a prolific and inventive composer, a virtuoso pianist, and by all accounts, a mensch. Let us hope we’ll be hearing more of Weinberg’s twenty-some symphonies, seventeen string quartets and seven operas, one of which is a setting of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, unveiled last May in Mannheim.
Weinberg was born in Poland. At the recommendation of famed pianist Joseph Hoffman, he was to have studied piano in the U.S., but with the outbreak of World War II, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union. He married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels, the famed director of the Jewish Theatre and chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the War. Through Mikhoels, he met Shostakovich. “It was as if I had been born anew,” he later said. “Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in February 1953, after the infamous “Doctor’s plot” in which trumped-up charges were brought against nine doctors, six of them Jews, for conspiring against the state. He imprisoned for three months and would have surely been killed if Shostakovich had not intervened on his behalf.
Weinberg sings in a frank, transparent style, with simple accompaniment patterns and a deep but not overwhelming sadness. A comparison with Shostakovich is inevitable, but Weinberg’s tone is distinctive, the voice of one who has suffered, but has neither despaired nor lapsed into irony. This “little concerto” opens with pure song: four descending notes floating on lightly-brushed strings, and what delicate feeling they convey! The soloist introduces the somber slow movement with a cadenza, and the melancholy Allegro moderato waltzes to an ominous conclusion. The Concertino was written in 1948, the year of the Zhdanov decrees that tainted Shostakovich and others with the “formalist” label (more below), but it was never performed. The same year, Weinberg’s father-in-law, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered in Minsk on Stalin’s orders.
Violin Sonata, Opus 134, orch. Pushkarev/Zinman Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
The Sonata for Violin and Piano, finished in October 1968, is the longest, and arguably the most daunting of the three sonatas for stringed instrument and piano by Shostakovich. As might be expected of a work “dedicated to the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh,” this is a big piece. The Ukrainian virtuoso was a towering musical figure in the Soviet Union, and many composers, including Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, dedicated works to him. Shostakovich wrote two violin concertos for Oistrakh. The 2005 orchestration by Andrei Pushkarev and Michail Zinman—in effect, a third concerto—places the music in a larger arena, with percussion strokes echoing those in Shostakovich’s own Fourteenth Symphony.
Shostakovich used twelve-note themes in nine late compositions, among them the Violin Concerto No. 2, three of the last quartets and the present Sonata. He never used them in a rigorous, Schoenbergian sense, seldom used them harmonically, and never used them systematically throughout a movement. All twelve tones of the chromatic scale are sounded in the first three bars of the Andante. The violin’s new stepwise theme bears Shostakovich’s musical initials: D-eS-C-H (the notes D-E-flat-C-B). A second subject on D brings a lighter, more sardonic tone. Shostakovich is the most metaphorical of composers. What to make then of the passage marked tranquillo, with its whistling-wind effect? Or of the rustling violin bells at movement’s close?
The modestly-titled Allegretto is in fact a brutal three-part scherzo in E-flat minor, far removed from the G/D tonality of the first movement. As relentless as it is difficult to play, it calls to mind the Stalin portrait in the composer’s Tenth Symphony. Six vigorous major chords announce the middle section.
After a brusque introduction, the Largo unfolds as a passacaglia—continuous variations on an eleven-bar theme that is first stated pizzicato, then varied in two large waves, culminating in a towering tutti punctuated by bass drum, then a violin cadenza. The whistling wind returns, then spectral bells.
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Opus 10 Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
This singular tribute to a beloved teacher is also one of the jewels of the string orchestra repertoire, and one of the more astonishing compositional feats by a composer of any age. It originated with a commission from Boyd Neel, who in addition to serving as House Surgeon and Physician at St. George’s Hospital, London had formed his own chamber orchestra. On short notice, the Boyd Neel Orchestra had been invited to appear at the Salzburg Festival, with the proviso that a new work by an English composer be on the program. Neel had noted 24-year-old Benjamin Britten’s compositional facility in the film studio. “I immediately asked him whether he would take on the Salzburg commission,” Neel writes, “and in ten days’ time he appeared at my house with the complete work sketched out.”
Britten had a sculptor’s knack for knowing where to strike the marble. He conceived a forward-looking work that showcases the colors of the string orchestra as well as his own considerable craft. The scoring, for solo quartet and double string choir, recalls at once the Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan Williams and the Introduction and Allegro by Elgar. And in his choice of a Theme, he pays homage to his teacher Frank Bridge (1879–1941), a distinguished composer overshadowed by those two.
The Variations rolls out like a film. Britten seems to begin at the end, with a bold chord that quick-cuts to a fanfare of E major over C. Then we zoom in on a deceptively simple quartet texture. A good set of variations begins with a sturdy theme, and Britten has chosen the lovely, but unassuming first page of an idyll for string quartet by Bridge, composed in 1906. Britten was certainly drawn to the first “chord”: C major and E major sounded together. It’s less a chord than an unprepared dissonance that draws your attention suddenly to an intimate conversation. The bass moves from C to F-sharp, a tritone relationship that figures prominently in the variations. This opening phrase points first to E minor, then to distant E-flat major. Note the graceful violin arabesque on repetition; it will see lots of action. Then there’s the bobbing waltz rhythm, marked “with tenderness”by Bridge. The opening Adagio explores the tritone relationship of the first two chords and the arabesque. Then its off on a cavalcade of styles and techniques. The work nods slyly to the European tradition with examples of chant, aria, bourée, funeral march, and a particularly cheeky and macabre Viennese waltz. Coloristic effects for strings abound, notably the quasi-guitar technique, and a combination of eerie harmonics and high pizzicato that belongs as much to science-fiction as to the timeless world of chant. The Fugue divides into fifteen parts and quotes from Bridge’s work. Teacher must have been proud—and more than a little envious.
Program notes copyright © 2013 by David Evan Thomas.