Weinberg Cello Sonata no. 2 op. 63

performed by Dmitry Yablonsky, cello and Hsin-Ni Liu, piano, or as below by Michal Kaňka, cello; Miguel Borges Coelho, piano

(cover image by Mathieu Stern)

Well, here’s our next Editor’s Choice composer. We’ve seen him on the blog now three previous times, all of it chamber music. He does, however, have a large output of symphonies and string quartets, to say nothing of his sonatas for various instruments, as we have seen and will continue to. You should definitely know about him, and he might be one of the best composers in the series to make an argument for “just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome,” in a very universal way.

Weinberg’s second cello sonata dates from 1959, and was completed on request from the great Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered it the following year. Rostropovich was so impressed when Weinberg stepped in last minute for Sviatoslav Richter at a song recital, and sight-read the entire program. That is indeed extremely impressive, and resulted in Rostropovich asking for this work. It is in three movements, as follows, and has a duration of just under 20 minutes in the Yablonsky recording:

  1. Moderato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro

Uncle Dave Lewis, writing for AllMusic, says the work “is more lyrical and perhaps a tad more ambivalent” than the first sonata.

Roderic Dunnett writing for The Strad says that:

The Weinberg is complex, intense, oblique and elusive, and the more rewarding for that. No wonder Shostakovich was one of his greatest admirers. SWR’s sound is agreeably forthright and well balanced.

Uncle Dave, though, in his AllMusic article, says that it’s “rather depressing and sometimes bland.” Again, can’t always rely on music critics, can we? I’ll give Dave the ‘rather depressing remark. There’s no denying that 20th century Soviet music is often heavy, and for good reason, but I won’t concede that it’s bland. It’s anything but.

The three movements are of almost equal length. The very first gesture by the cello initially seems like it is broad and spacious, a gesture like drawing blinds to let in the sun, but it turns out to be darker and much more melancholy than that. The melody that appears again and again reminds me in some way of a plaintive cry, like something maybe from a child, not in the way it sounds, but in the emotions it evokes. It’s simple and straightforward, but cuts right to the heart. There’s a familiar sense of sorrow, of emptiness or loss in this music, partly due to the spread of the ranges here, and the sonorous, almost church-like toll of the piano behind, or sometimes in front of, the cello.

After the richer double-stopped (triple stopped?) but also yet somehow more somber close to the first movement, the andante is along similar lines if not a bit more intimate. There’s a hint of a folk tune in here somewhere, like the sad song of an oppressed and nearly forgotten people. This is contrasted with a heartbeat-like pizzicato, something simple but unsettling that you’d also hear in Shostakovich’s music. This moderato reaches intense heights, though, certainly a climax of the work overall.

The finale begins nervously, but for me, while there definitely remains a nervous energy, the ultimate result is a kind of resolve in that we’ve left the tragedy of the first two movements. While that doesn’t mean that this finale is cheerful or optimistic in any way, perhaps determination is a better word than resolve. It’s kind of a perpetuum mobile, with the opening rhythm almost never stopping in one instrument or the other, virtually ad nauseam. The chaos continues, to an effective but incessant degree, such that the only relief we feel by the end of the work is that it’s over.

Really, I’d like to say that it’s very similar to Shostakovich, but I won’t for two reasons. Firstly, that robs Weinberg himself of the credit he deserves as a composer that isn’t derivative. In fact, Uncle Dave says ” Weinberg at times sounds more like “Shostakovich” than Shostakovich himself does,” which he calls both “mind-bendingly impressive” and “yet a bit depressing, to devotees of Shostakovich. If Shostakovich’s Polish acolyte could reproduce his sound so easily and so well, what does that say about the master?” But that’s neither here nor there.

Secondly, if you’re a devoted, die-hard Shostakovich-lover, you’re bound to be disappointed that this music, if so advertised, is not exactly like what you hope for it to be, but with the first point in mind, why would it be? As I’ve said before, I don’t expect to be able to change much about people’s viewpoints with regards to Weinberg, if they even know who he is, but it’s certainly a good argument that there really is so much out there to enjoy, and there’s never been a better time in history than now to do so. So get out there and start listening. This is a wonderful little find, and really quite easy to appreciate if you’re willing to get comfortable with the idea that beautiful does not necessarily mean pretty.

This brings our short little spate of Editor’s Choice posts to an end, and tomorrow we begin something very exciting indeed, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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