performed by Linus Roth and the Berlin German Symphony Orchestra under Mihkel Kütson, available on Spotify
I am very impressed by M.S. Vainberg’s Violin Concerto, superbly interpreted by the Communist violinist L.B. Kogan. It is a magnificent work. And I am weighing my words.
(cover image by Nathan Anderson)
This must be one of the composer’s most famous, or well known, pieces, if not the most. I say that in relative terms, obviously, as unfortunately many people have still never heard of Mieczysław Weinberg.
But for those who haven’t, Linus Roth and Jens Laurson are doing a fantastic job of promoting his works. Roth has in recent years released multiple discs of Weinberg’s violin music, unaccompanied or with piano, and Laurson, who also coauthored Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty, gives us the liner notes on these albums, which I am at this point, surprisingly, not going to be making much reference to for a few reasons, one of those being that I moved recently and have no idea where they are.
Weinberg’s sole violin concerto was completed in 1959, and dedicated to Leonid Kogan, to whom Shostakovich refers in the opening quote. The work is in four movements, as below, with a playing time of about 28 minutes:
- Allegro molto
- Allegro risoluto
The composer almost always mentioned in the same breath with Weinberg is Shostakovich, and the acclaimed master held this concerto in very high regard, as can be seen from the opening quote.
Shostakovich’s music reaches depths of despair and intensity that some listeners may find uncomfortable or harsh, and I really do understand that. For those listeners, this is the piece for you. David Fanning says this at Gramophone about the work:
Weinberg’s Violin Concerto was composed in 1959, around the time of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1. Its sturdy, unrelenting first movement seems to have less elevated targets in its sights – something more like the instant gratification of Khachaturian’s Concerto. But the momentarily chastened final pages set the tone for two exploratory inner movements that mull over some of the same ideas in calmer and ultimately rather touching spans, making the Shostakovich comparison more realistic.
The first movement is indeed ‘sturdy’ and ‘unrelenting,’ but it does give an almost surprising sense of ‘instant gratification’ that is somewhat unexpected in the context of the subject matter.
The first movement is the longest of the work, and carries a good amount of heft, but surprisingly, we don’t have to work for it in the sense that it doesn’t take much getting used to. It’s straightforward in its presentation of material, which packs a punch, but it also has a Tchaikovsky-like melodiousness that infects the ear, sticks with the listener. It’s an exciting, intense ride, but I feel like, despite being the largest movement, We cover perhaps the least ground here, as the movement almost runs the risk of being repetitive, but isn’t. At a mere eight minutes, we are sufficiently sucked into the work, committed to where this work will take us and what it will accomplish.
As Fanning references, the two middle movements are the ones that give us pause, dispense with any of the catchy memorable tunes (which, mind you, are wonderfully effective; I’m not belittling them) in favor of some real serious stuff.
The second movement, by only looking at the markings for the four movements, you may suspect is the scherzo, but the rich orchestral opening, quite melancholy, sets up a different atmosphere, with a melody that’s more haunting than just memorable. The violin picks up this melody after the orchestra has presented it, and the orchestra more or less fades into the background, with pizzicato here and there to let the soloist meditate on the idea, which comes across with almost unnerving persistence.
It sounds at times more likely to evolve into a march than a scherzo, but the result is intimate and moving, with the orchestra, not in the palpable spotlight that the soloist enjoys, supports from the darkness some distance away. The orchestra swells to the fore as if the tides have changed, but the momentary change only leads to a yet more intimate cadenza passage from the soloist. If this is the allegretto, what is to occur in the adagio?
Well, the violin solo leads us into the third movement, with a trace of the ostinato-like second movement theme, now in a more sentimental quality to it, perhaps even tragic or mournful. It should be obvious here that Weinberg’s writing for the instrument is not just showy and exciting and virtuosic, but very expressive. This movement is like some dream state, a fantasy in the soloist’s head, resulting from having drifted off into thought. It strikes me as the most removed from the rest of the work, the farthest from the potential endpoint, but it’s written with remarkable finesse and is just so very beautiful in its touching intimacy. Listen for the beams of optimism and light that shine through in this overall melancholy movement.
The finale is, at least in Roth’s recording, almost exactly the same length as the adagio (a second shorter). What do you expect from a ‘risoluto’ marking? Maybe not the kind of instantly celebratory sound with which the finale opens. Remember the biting material that opened this work? We seem now so far from that, at least at first. The mischievous Shostakovich-esque playfulness and color appear here, though the sarcasm isn’t nearly as searing. The orchestral color, with use of exposed woodwinds, guttural rumbles from contrabassoon and the like, is so effective. There is satisfyingly, a little madness, too, before the finale revisits, albeit briefly, the spellbinding subject that opened this entire work, and surprisingly, but wholly satisfying, suitably, ends quietly.
What a work this is! It is really a perfect concerto, a work that gives the listener an immediate satisfaction without showing all its cards too soon, and leaves some depth and intensity to be enjoyed and discovered. It has the harshness that makes Shostakovich’s music what it is, but it isn’t nearly so bleak, and to me, this all means that Weinberg’s violin concerto occupies a unique place in the repertoire, one that should be visited far more often than it is. What a satisfying, exceptional piece!
We move on to a yet more modern composer this weekend, so please do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading!