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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Paul Graener and Mieczyslaw Weinberg

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new recordings of music by Paul Graener and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

PAUL GRAENER (1872-1944): Comedietta, op. 82 (1928).  Variations on a Russian Folk Song, op. 55 (ca. 1917). Musik am Abend (Music in the Evening), op. 44 (ca. 1915). Sinfonia breve, 96 (1932). Wener Andreas Albert conducting NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hannover. CPO 777447.

The music of Paul Graener, a composer almost totally forgotten today, is marked by a thorough professionalism and security in the treatment of form and orchestration.  Not much is known about Graener’s personal and professional life, except that he became a Nazi Party member in the early 1930s (he become vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer after Wilhelm Furtwängler — who was never asked whether he wanted the honorary post or not — resigned; he held that office until 1941).  Graener’s home and all of his papers were casualties of the final phase of the Second World War.  He — by then an old man — and his family fled from city to city as the Third Reich was swallowed up in approaching defeat. They wound up in Salzburg.  It was there that he died at age 72, in 1944.

Both Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians and The New Grove do not mention Graener’s Nazi connections.  He seems to have attended conservatory without graduating, being for the most part self-taught.  He is said to have spent roughly a decade as musical director at the Haymarket Theatre in London, conducting the orchestra and writing incidental music and entr’actes.  Some sources say that this arrangement, begun at the end of the 19th century, ended after a short time due to a series of differences of artistic values with the theater manager.  Others say that he also taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London for a few years before going back to Germany.  His star rose quickly, with conductors like Hermann Abendroth, Erich Kleiber and Arturo Toscanini championing his works.  Toscanini even retained a few items by Graener in his active repertory through the 1940s.   He held a number of important academic positions in Germany and Austria, notably as Director of the Salzburg Mozarteum and a similar post at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin.  His National Socialist Party membership and the obliteration of his papers and manuscripts may have figured in his consignment to oblivion.

Graener’s four orchestral compositions on this disc seem to oscillate between the freshness of composers like Richard Strauss or the Dutchman Johan Wagenaar (the charming and airy Comedietta), who were his contemporaries, and conventionality. There are a few echoes of another contemporary — Max Reger — especially in the Variations on a Russian Folksong, the well-known “Volga Boatmen” song. There is always the professional touch and the unmistakable sound of a composer who really knows how to orchestrate. Werner Andreas Albert, always a more than capable steward of esoteric repertory, proves himself an advocate for Graener as he has done with many other composers whose music he has brought to light over the years. The Hanover orchestra plays better than merely well for him.


MIECZYSLAW WEINBERG (formerly known as Moisey or Moishe Vainberg) (1919-1996): Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, op. 47/1(1949).  Symphony No. 6, with poetry by Lev Kvitko, Samuil Galkin and Mikhail Lukonin, op. 79 (1963).  Vladimir Lande conducting the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, with (in the Symphony) The Glinka Choral College Boys’ Choir, prepared by Vasily Grachev. Naxos 8.572779.

The Polish-born Weinberg, who died sixteen years ago at 76, is paradoxically both self-consciously and unselfconsciously Jewish — more of a state of who he was rather than what he was.  Barely twenty years old, Weinberg  was an aspiring pianist studying in his hometown of Warsaw when the Nazi occupation forced him to flee to Minsk, now the capital of Byelorus.  Moving to Tashkent at the end of the turbulent 1930s, he found work at an opera house there and composed his first symphony — which attracted the attention of Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a staunch friend and advocate.  Weinberg (or Vainberg) soon found himself settled in Moscow, where he died in February 1996. 

Symphony No. 6, Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes by Mieczyslaw WeinbergFrom the beginning, Weinberg had his works performed by “name” Soviet conductors: Alexander Gauk led the première of the Moldavian Rhapsody when it was new, with the Moscow Radio Symphony; a performance of his fourth symphony in 1961, under the direction of Kirill Kondrashin, attracted wide attention; later that same year, his friend and mentor Shostakovich released his fourth symphony, a work embargoed for more than twenty years, and these two works are credited with reviving an interest in symphonic form among the younger generation of Soviet composers at that time.  Kondrashin also led the first performance of Weinberg’s sixth symphony—one of two works featured on the present disc— in mid-November of 1963. (There is a CD that was made from a tape of that first performance, on the Olympia label.)

Weinberg’s professional and artistic lives were not steady streams of triumph, despite the fact that at his death he left a catalogue that included — among many other works — some 27 symphonies.  Many of these are of epic length; No. 27 was left incomplete when he died, probably from untreated Crohn’s disease.  As a rising young professional in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Weinberg saw his father-in-law (actor Solomon Mikhoels) executed—on the direct order of Stalin, as it was later discovered.  Weinberg himself was arrested in February 1953; Shostakovich directly intervened with Lavrenti Beria, the feared secret police chief, for his friend’s release.  Weinberg’s wife reportedly had secured an agreement with Shostakovich and his wife that the Shostakoviches would assume power of attorney over the Weinbergs’ young daughter, which in the event of her mother’s arrest would keep her out of state-run orphanages.  Stalin’s death in March 1953, as it turned out, freed Weinberg and made possible the posthumous “rehabilitation” of Mikhoels.   Weinberg, grimly noting that anti-Semitism was not the exclusive specialty the Nazis, turned out his share of “socialist realism” pieces, using folk elements as in the Moldavian Rhapsody—a highly effective “audience piece” which lacks nothing in originality and freshness of ideas—to great effect. At various times, he even found himself unemployed or underemployed, only finding work writing commercial and circus music. And, while never a Communist Party member, Weinberg did not escape official scorn.  Though Weinberg said of himself, “I am a pupil of Shostakovich, even though I never had lessons from him”, he was perhaps a greater influence on Shostakovich than Shostakovich was on him.  One can hear anticipations of Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry in Weinberg’s sixth symphony, a work of compelling originality.  There is perhaps nothing like it in the symphonic repertory—unless, perhaps, it is something by Weinberg.  This reviewer is coming to know Weinberg’s music for the first time through this disc.

Three of the symphony’s five movements involve poetry and the voices of children.  After an initially somber first movement, the chorus sings a Russian translation of a Yiddish poem by Lev Kvitko (1890-1952), having to do with a boy making a violin from scraps, an instrument which he plays for an audience of animals and birds.  The composer’s love of high string sounds — manifest throughout the entire symphony — is evident from the beginning.  That, however, is only one facet of this composer’s grasp of orchestral color.  There is always clarity, a seeking of “chamber” effects from large forces; there is always a sense of musical architecture as well as one of musico-dramatic continuity.  To return to the second movement, its “folklike” quality is apparent from the beginning, though Weinberg never quotes folk sources.  The story of the violin is told, really, by the violin itself (as it turns out) as much as by the chorus.  Weinberg’s skilful use of the entire tonal palette — including sotto voce percussion — never lets the orchestra overwhelm the voices. 

The third movement, marked Allegro molto, begins with brass—dovetailing from a trumpet fanfare that ends the previous movement—and is in the character of a scherzo.  This is really the first time that the full orchestra is heard, but a hallmark of Weinberg’s style is aggressiveness without oppression.  His is a place in the musical universe where clarity always rules, even in the “busiest” or most fortissimo passages.  The fourth movement, a reworking of one of Weinberg’s Jewish Songs of 1944, is a setting of a poem by Samuil Galkin (1897-1960) —basically, it says that the cemetery is where the house once stood; eventually, it will become a memorial for future generations. It opens with a blaze of brass, high strings and percussion, giving way to a kind of mournful unison hymn with a sparse-textured accompaniment of clarinets (mostly in the chalumeau register) and tremolandi in the lower strings, occasionally punctuated by timpani and winds and, later, celesta.  Again, Weinberg’s consummate mastery of orchestral balance and his predilection for clarity carry the day.  It seems as though the predominantly unison chorus and the orchestra share alike, and alternate, in the telling of the tale of desolation.  Naxos does not provide the texts and translations, which is an unfortunate omission: we are denied the fullness of sharing in the mood and message of the piece.  The hopefulness of the song of the boy and his crude violin is overwhelmed by the specter of death. 

The fourth movement ends on a major third, which leads without interruption into the low clarinets and high strings ushering in a more optimistic lullaby for the children of the world.  The Russian words of this fifth and final movement are by Mikhail Lukonin (1918-1976), which speak of awakening to a brighter tomorrow, and the setting is a kind of simple song in a slow three.  The simplicity turns into exquisiteness, as the song is ambivalent about whether it wants to be in the major or minor mode.  The ending, after a wistful violin solo and an equally gripping horn solo, ends on a gentle dissonance.  Shostakovich never wrote anything like this.  Weinberg’s voice is unique—it is personal and at the same time evocative of something outside of himself.  Vladimir Lande, whose activity takes in much of the United States as well as St. Petersburg, catches this spirit admirably, and the boys’ chorus and orchestra are superb.  Naxos has done a great service in bringing this much-neglected composer’s music back to life.