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Weinberg Rarity

New Jersey
New Brunswick (State Theater)
10/23/2016 -  & October 24* (New York), 27 (Lewisburg), 2016
Johannes Brahms: Tragic Overture, op. 81
Fryderyk Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor, op. 11
Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Symphony No. 4 in A-minor, op. 61

Seong-Jin Cho (Piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic, Jacek Kaspszyk (Conductor)

J. Kaspszyk & Warsaw Philharmonic (© Wiktor Zdrojewski)

Two days after the performance at the Purchase College, Warsaw Philharmonic on their intensive 17 days 14-concert tour came to the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ and a day later they appeared in New York, in Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall with the same program that consisted of works by Brahms, Chopin and Weinberg (whose name I mentioned already in my previous review). During these two concerts, very similar in repertory and execution, the main attention was directed in first half to the sensational Korean soloist Seong-Jin Cho and in the second half to the American premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg Symphony No. 4. Both concerts were extremely well attended and the one in Alice Tully Hall was sold out. There was, as one could predict, a large segment of Korean community, as Cho is now regarded as their national hero. In Alice Tully Hall there was also present which I am pleased to report, a large Polish audience: enthusiasm and standing ovations for the pianist, conductor and the Polish orchestra were offered in both auditoriums.

Six years ago the New York Philharmonic with Allan Gilbert brought to then Avery Fisher Hall (today renamed to David Geffen Hall) a recent winner of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw (2010), a young Russian, Yuliana Avdeeva, to perform with that orchestra Chopin Piano Concerto in E-minor. At that time, not having heard this pianist before, I was somewhat surprised that this type of a lackluster, uninspiring interpretation could be offered by the winner of such a prestigious competition. Well, not such thought crossed my mind when the 22 year old Korean sat at the piano to perform the same concerto. Here, almost from the first notes one was aware that we are witnessing an artist who is on the same level as the most famous winners of that legendary competition. Since I have heard him already a several times this year, including a phenomenal performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, I was not at all surprised of his utter mastery of the keyboard, though even there he seemed to be more than equal to the great Argerich, who set her own standards for that work. What impressed me more was the poetry, the beautiful sound in the vocal lines, the narration, expressiveness and eloquence of his playing. I feel he is an instinctive player and mean it as a compliment, for in what he did there was nothing artificial, nothing “because my teacher told me so”. For his encore we were rewarded both times with the regal, commanding reading of the famed Polonaise in A-flat op. 53 by Chopin, where one had to wonder how this slightly built boy gets such a huge, rich, sonorous sound out of his piano. Let it be his secret.

S.-J. Cho (© Masayuki Nakajima)

One must not forget to mention an excellent contribution of Maestro Kaspszyk and his orchestra which they offered to the soloist: the tuttis were spacious yet not dragged, tempos flexible and for once one could clearly hear the bassoon solo lines and other solos, executed with assurance and assertiveness. One could also understand why the already mentioned, the celebrated Ms. Argerich values Kaspszyk as much as her partner-on-the conductor’s podium.

For many of us in the audience waited to hear for the first time the yet unknown in this country work by Polish-Jewish composer Weinberg. I still recall my first contact with his orchestral music, when Leon Botstein presented with his American Symphony Orchestra Weinberg’s Symphony No. 6. I observed then, that the musical similarity between Shostakovich and his younger colleague and friend were striking. However, what made Weinberg symphony so remarkable was that even if it sounded in places like Shostakovich, it was still the first rate Shostakovich... or the first rate Weinberg. More than a decade later, this time experiencing the performances of the Symphony No. 4 my impressions remained unchanged.

The four movement work, as observed in her very insightful program notes by the Polish scholar Danuta Gwizdalanka, owes as much to Shostakovich as to Mahler. Shostakovich never has never hidden his fascination with Mahler and it should not surprise that Weinberg might have adopted some of those influences. All of the movements, originally had titles, but right before the first Moscow performance in 1961 the composer replaced them with traditional tempo markings. There’s a little doubt that Toccata as the first movement was named was a very appropriate heading for the energetic, pulsating, restless opening fragment. Here the unison strings – and Warsaw strings were really excellent! – were complemented by the shrieking solos of winds which in my ears was a direct influence of Weinberg’s mentor. That, I felt, was also a case of the 3rd movement Adagio-Andantino originally called Serenade. Its character is tragic, not only because of the unabashed use of Jewish theme but perhaps even more so by utilizing the “genre” created by Shostakovich (first time used in the last movement of the Piano Trio No. 2 in E-min) which could for all practical purposes be called “dance over the graves”. The haunting opening of the solo horn is soon taken by the sad quiet melody of the strings: one doesn’t have to stretch his imagination to accept that like in many other of Weinberg’s works, here we witness a tribute to the lost lives not only of composer’s own family, but the entire Jewish race nearly wiped out by the Nazis. What amazes in Weinberg’s score, just as it does in Mahler and in Shostakovich, is the economy of orchestration: often no more than one or two solo instruments are featured, which creates an eerie sense of chamber music. Here there are the solos of clarinet and flute that rein. It is also a single solo note of the flute that ends this movement of a rare drama, intensity and sadness. And just as the Great Dmitry, who time and again in his own works wipes the poignant, heartrending mood of a preceding sadness with the ostensibly positive, optimistic finales, in the Symphony No.4 Weinberg returns to the boisterous Vivace of the last movement, in part based on some well-known Russian tune. Here one can agree with the comment of Ms. Gwizdalanka, that there is “a perceptible presence mazurka rhythms, while hovering over everything is an aura of Stravinsky’s Petrushka”.

It seemed to me that in that last work on the program the Polish orchestra outdid itself: they showed their virtuosity, unity of vision, outstanding sound of the string section and absolutely first rate wind and brass solos. There is every now and then a tendency among the music critics to compare one performance to another. Here it was impossible of course, but as rarely in my reviewing activity, I was leaving the hall with a feeling that we have witnessed a definitive performance, one that perhaps some other great orchestra may equal, but will probably not surpass. Kaspszyk simply feels that music and it is a wonderful piece of news that he has plans to continue to record more works of Weinberg with his band for the Warner Classics label. Perhaps now would some major American orchestra follow the suit?

Roman Markowicz



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