WEINBERG: Piano Quintet in f; String Quartet No. 8 in c.
Borodin Quartet; Moisey (Mieczyslaw) Weinberg (piano).
Melodya MEL CD 10 01998 TT: 55:30.

It's become increasingly clear that Moisey Weinberg has emerged as the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofieff and Shostakovich. A Polish Jew, he had to flee to the Soviet Union at the Nazi invasion of Poland. The family he left behind perished in the death camps. Unlike Prokofieff and Shostakovich, he never became an artistic Hero of the People, because the government never promoted him. He endured even more interference from the Stalinist bureaucracy than the other two because of it. He almost perished in the anti-Semitic purge of the "doctors' plot" to supposedly assassinate Stalin. Only Stalin's death saved him. Soviet security agents murdered his father-in-law in the street. Early on, he became a friend of Shostakovich who championed his work. Although never a pupil of Shostakovich, he adopted Shostakovich's musical language and created works as good. This happens rarely. Think of all the Impressionists not Ravel after Debussy or those Wagnerian opera composers not Richard Strauss after Wagner. In both cases, we have a successor with his own strong musical personality. Weinberg's music to me feels warmer and less raw than his model. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg excelled in the symphony and chamber music, particularly the string quartet. Indeed, his string quartets prodded Shostakovich to pay more attention to the form, and they entered a friendly competition to see who would write more. Shostakovich was ahead at the time of his death, but Weinberg eventually passed him with 17.
Weinberg's Piano Quintet comes about three years after Shostakovich's. In five movements each, both partake of the atmosphere of the Great Patriotic War (the Eastern Front) of the 1940s -- brooding, dark, sometimes grotesque. Both consist of five movements. Shostakovich's score leans more on classical forms and Bachian contrapuntalism (the second movement's a fugue, for example), while Weinberg's is more overtly Romantic and dramatic.
The first movement flows like a troubled river, with a dead-march idea alternating and combining. Its architectural smarts remind me of Brahms. Weinberg masterfully integrates the disparate ideas and indeed shows their relationships to one another. Everything sounds inevitable, to boot. The second movement Allegretto skitters along with unsettling rhythmic and tonal ambiguity. You often don't know where you are in either its diatonic or metered universe. Normally, this sort of movement would function as a scherzo. It is as strong as anything Shostakovich wrote. The nominal scherzo follows. In effect, the quintet has two scherzos, the second more overtly grotesque and toccata-like. It, too, has its moments of rhythmic disorientation. At times, a sardonic, parodistic waltz breaks in, and it ends in an unexpected key.
The slow movement begins with unison declamation from all five players on an idea heavy on fourths and fifths, one of the two main generators of the movement. A bunch of dense, stabbing chords leads to a keening violin, soon joined by cello. The piano gives out a kind of quiet fanfare and its own, very substantial recitative (the second source of the movement's matter), before it, too, is joined by the cello and the rest of the strings, often in unison. The final sections of the "Largo" focus on integrating the initial idea with the piano recitative. What may seem sectional and chaotic at first draws together at the end. The emotional content, solemn and dramatic, suggest a deep, subtle lament -- subtle, in the sense that none of the usual devices to suggest grief appear here. You expect a slow movement to be "the heart of a work," and Weinberg certainly delivers.
The finale opens with a hammering piano underneath an obsessive theme in unison strings. This gives away to imitative writing on a near-manic idea (reminds me of an Irish reel), followed by the return of the first theme. Weinberg sets you up to expect something like a rondo and messes with you. At one point in the section, the flowing theme from the first movement sneaks in, to be buried by the "reel." The obsessive idea returns, treated canonically, alternating with the reel. The counterpoint builds until the initial flowing theme returns full-throated. Has suffering triumphed? Hardly. After a climax, the music quiets considerably, as the obsession mutters to the end. I can't tell you what any of it means, but we arrive at neither triumph nor prayer. Folks, this score is not merely very good, but a masterpiece.
From 1959, the Quartet No. 8 unfolds in one movement in seven sections, designated by tempo changes. However, that gives you little idea of what happens. The movement has four main ideas: an adagio intro, a sorrowful section with melody suggestive of Eastern European Jewish folk music, two manic, grotesque dances (also indebted to Jewish folk music) -- the first fast, the second faster following each other with pause. The adagio section acts as a curtain-raiser to what follows, and it sandwiches the sorrowing passage, not to bring it to a conclusion, but to set up the more driven parts. The first dance unleashes a great rush of near-hallucinatory energy, and the second suddenly increases the intensity, as if a powerful engine suddenly had lost its control. The storm catches up the chief ideas of the quartet, thus providing a development section. The climax signals a mirror-like reversal, as we move back to the first dance, the lament, and something similar to the adagio. There the quartet ends.
Thus, the quartet resembles sonata form: a first subject group (adagio, lament); second subject group (first dance); development (second dance); recap in reverse (lament, adagio). Yet all this structural description, although it shows Weinberg's immense craft, is beside the point. It's the drama and the possible autobiographical stimulus of the score. To me, it both rages against and mourns European Jewry during the Second World War. By 1959, Soviets were trying to forget their own anti-Semitism (as shown by the efforts to suppress Shostakovich's "Babi Yar" Symphony a few years later), which couldn't have ingratiated him with the government. This work presents a powerful witness that belies its 15 minutes.
The performances are historic. The original Borodin Quartet and the composer himself do the honors. The Borodin, one of the top quartets in the Soviet Union, probably got the work performed. Weinberg himself was a superb pianist (Shostakovich tried to use him as much as possible in concerts of his chamber scores) with all the musical smarts of a great composer and of course knew what he wanted from the music. They deliver a powerful, committed account.

S.G.S. (February 2022)