Music Articles

Classical Lost and Found: String Quartets In The Shadow Of Shostakovich

Weinberg string quartets i
courtesy of CPO records
Weinberg string quartets
courtesy of CPO records

Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also spelled Vaynberg) was of Jewish decent, and the only immediate member of his family to get out of Poland alive, following the Nazi occupation of 1939. Initially he fled to Minsk, but as the Nazis “panzered” into Russia, he moved further east to Tashkent in 1941.

While there he sent a copy of his first symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich, who was so impressed he invited him to Moscow, where Weinberg would go in 1943, and spend the rest of his life. But in some respects he jumped from the Nazi frying pan into the Soviet fire, considering his music was ignored for years by the hard-line cultural establishment.

To make matters worse, in 1953 his Jewish associations and Stalin's anti-Semitic policies led to his imprisonment. But Shostakovich interceded again, writing a letter to the authorities gaining his release.

He became a close associate of Shostakovich, stating at one point, "I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood." This is apparent in Weinberg's 17 string quartets, three of which are performed on this new album by the young Danel Quartet. The music has much in common with Shostakovich's string quartets, but they’re not just retreads. They may speak the same language, but it’s with an entirely different accent.

Weinberg's fifth quartet, from 1945, is atypically in five movements, titled "Melody," "Humoresque," "Scherzo," "Improvisation," and "Serenade." There's enough variety and informality in the music to make it more of a suite. The hyperactive moments smack of Shostakovich's second quartet, but there's an emphasis on melody that's purely Weinberg.

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Weinberg: String Quartet No. 5 -- 'Humoresqe'

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Weinber album cover
Courtesy of CPO Recrds

Weinberg’s prescient ninth quartet, from 1963, would seem to indicate the influence between these two composers went in both directions. There are passages that anticipate ideas in Shostakovich's tenth, eleventh and twelfth quartets, written in 1964 and 1966.

The most progressive music on the album is Weinberg's fourteenth quartet, from 1978. The irascible opening movement is a dogfight between the cello and first violin, with its dissonance and sudden silences. The quartet is a unique creation, but it could also hint at what Shostakovich might have come up with had he lived longer.

Having apprenticed under the renowned Amadeus Quartet, the Brussels-based Danel Quartet has since become one of today's finest, specializing in outstanding lesser known repertoire. Their commitment to the music is evident in these stirring performances as well as on their three previous Weinberg releases for the CPO label. Bring on the rest!

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.



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