Weinberg Violin Sonata no. 1

performed by Linus Roth and Jose Gallardo, or below by Yuri Kalnits, violin and Michael Csányi-Wills, piano

(cover image by Thomas Cigolla)

I used to record a podcast.

And one of the people on my radar I’d intended to interview before I didn’t have time to continue it was Linus Roth. He’s recorded all of Weinberg’s violin music, the sonatas for violin with piano, the solo sonatas, along with concertos, etc., on Challenge Records, and I was interested to talk to him about his experience and insight with the works. Weinberg wrote six sonatas for violin and piano, three for violin solo, as well as a sonata for two violins, a sonatina, concertino and concerto, and some other works.

Today we begin with his earliest published work for the violin as solo instrument. He wrote ‘Three Pieces for violin and piano’ in 1934, but the work doesn’t carry an opus number. Today’s sonata was written in 1943, while the composer was still in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Jump back to the article from last weekend on the string quartet for how the composer ended up there, but he was leaving his home and eventually ended up in Moscow.

From the first notes, it’s one of those things that grips me a little bit, instantly gets my attention. The violin’s very first utterance is haunting, melancholy, passionate, sincere… It first speaks in unison with the piano. Things get a little chaotic here and there, but also come to a standstill in either long pauses or quiet, static passages. This sonata-form first movement approaches the maniacal but never quite reaches it. David Fanning at Gramophone says that this and the second sonata present a composer who is “gradually taking command of the duo sonata genre, with some help from Schubert and Prokofiev,” and we can hear both of those influences, as disparate as they may seem. While the composer may not plumb the depths he seems to have promised us, it’s certainly a compelling first movement, and ends subtly but powerfully.

The second movement couldn’t begin any differently. Now you hear Schubert more than Prokofiev, right? But let’s not continue to talk about Weinberg solely in terms of other composers. It is lyrical, beautiful, and almost purely carefree until we reach the middle portion of this ternary-form movement, and even then, it’s more plaintive than violent. Only the faintest remnants of the first movement are found in this tender central movement. Its ending, too, is so different from the terse final gesture of the first movement.

Finally, then, the finale. One would almost expect, like the string quartet, that after the juxtaposition of the two earlier movements, that we’d have a fireworks-spectacle of white-hot intensity for the finale, but it begins rather idyllically. There’s almost a sense that we’re heading toward a fugue of some kind. There’s at least some very pleasant contrapuntal movement here, and it’s actually pretty sunny. This is the longest of the three movements, and while, yes, again, we’re hearing what we now associate with the rawness of Soviet composers, this work isn’t just that. There’s a crystalline clarity, light humor, and undeniable craft to the sound of this movement (and the work overall) that perhaps hints more at Prokofiev than the composer’s friend Shostakovich, but Shostakovich only wrote one sonata for the violin, and it’s a dark work.

While the finale also looks towards the rawness of later works from more noted composers, it is actually overall relatively bright. The finale is much more lively than the other two movements, but overall the most powerful moment of this work 22-ish minute work is when that opening phrase from the first movement returns in the finale, out of nowhere, in the way you suddenly remember a dream you had hours after you left your bed. It’s quiet, subdued, but extremely powerful, and at a stroke casts a shadow over the optimism of this entire work, ending with a question mark rather than a period, as if perhaps the composer was already aware of the tragedies and sorrows that would soon come.

But even despite that, it is an early work. It’s very engaging, vivid, memorable, even, but I’m not surprised we don’t see it on recital programs across the planet. In the program notes for the Challenge records release, Jens F. Laurson says that “what [the work] suffers from inexperience it makes up with its relaxed, lyrical ways.”

James Manheim calls the first sonata “an imperfect early work, with repetitive passages,” but also credits Weinberg in saying that the work “has what you might call a typical Shostakovich structure of feeling before Shostakovich himself came up with such a thing.” I appreciate the credit that that statement gives to Weinberg, who as we can see is clearly on the precipice of absolute greatness. I’m eager to get to the rest of the violin works.

But we’ll do a cello work on Thursday, in keeping with the pattern we’ve set the past four or five weeks. Stay tuned for that, and see you then! Thank you for reading.

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