Weinberg String Quartet no. 2, op. 3

performed by the Quatuor Danel, available on Spotify

(cover image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen)

The second string quartet of Mieczysław Weinberg was written in 1940. There is unfortunately not really a lot online about this piece, so this introductory bit will be rather short. It is in four movements, as below, with a playing time of about 27 minutes:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto
  4. Presto

Weinberg apparently went back almost half a decade to revise the work, revisiting it in the 80s, and I assume that is the version we have here, but I can’t say that for sure.

What is fortunate about this piece is that it’s so perfectly accessible that we really don’t need any prefatory remarks or much history to have a great appreciation for the work even at first pass.

The first and second movements are each on their own longer than the third and fourth combined, which gives a sense of momentum to the piece overall, that things quicken and intensify. There’s the ever-present association with Shostakovich that Weinberg always gets, which isn’t a bad thing, but in some cases, it’s unique and refreshing to clear away even just a little bit of the crushing tragedy and darkness of Shosty’s work and hear some of the lighter, more folksy elements in their purer form. This piece is remarkably charming and effective. Let’s get going.

The piece begins unassumingly (deceptively?) with charm and bounce, a quality that reminds me of Schoenberg’s unnumbered string quartet in D major, before the turn of the century. It’s so far from what was to come later, so bright, and yet reveals such finesse and skill from the composer. For all the association with Shostakovich Weinberg gets, this first movement is blissfully carefree.

After the exposition repeat, even the development, with wonderfully contrapuntal passages, reaches a frenetic level of energy, but not violence or tragedy. It’s remarkable how far afield we can travel and yet still be orbiting that opening material so closely. It’s quite tightly constructed, and interesting to see how this whole eight-and-a-half movement is constructed out of seemingly so little material. Again, finesse, especially in the extremely reserved close of the movement.

The second (and longest) movement gets us closer to the kind of Shostakovich-esque sound that people associate with Weinberg (or at least those who know him). It begins unsettlingly, like a serenade if it were in a Hitchcock film, with pizzicato underpinning the long, languid melody. Violin enters to complete the image, and the bittersweet, dirge-like movement builds from there.

Almost halfway through this movement, you may think we’ve reached the scherzo or something, but after a truly pained climax, there is presented material that seems entirely unrelated, certainly not an andante, but even this outburst manages to get woven into the fabric of this movement, and it works.

Upon reaching the allegretto, though, we see that in fact, that central passage in the second movement may indeed have served as our scherzo. This movement is subdued, almost somewhat distant, like its being played from across a courtyard, or around a corner, like we’re secretly observing an after-dinner conversation that’s gotten a little serious in a restaurant that is no longer packed.  It, too, ends quietly.

But the opening of the finale, the shortest movement of the work, doesn’t let any silence linger. The first brushstrokes of this presto finale make up what could be a devilish, sickened beginning of some overture or other, if it were disfigured and sarcastic. But it doesn’t stay so very dark; in fact, it’s quite playful, but the energy never subsides. The shrieking closing gestures, before the Webern-like plucked string close, sounds much more like what we might expect the later Weinberg to write.

I get the impression that the young composer was being modest here, that he had all the qualities in his quiver that his late music would express, but with a lighter, more reserved nature. There’s a pastoral sense about it overall, actually, and with a few poignant moments, the work overall is very compelling. This is his second quartet in only three opus numbers. Imagine what the later of his seventeen string quartets must be like! That’s an exciting thought, isn’t it? We’ll find out eventually.

We have not Weinberg this week, actually. Like I said previously, we’ve swapped things around this week, but we will see Weinberg next week, so please do stay tuned for all of that and thanks so much for reading.

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