Weinberg String Quartets, Volume One – Arcadia Quartet on Chandos

Weinberg - String Quartets Vol 1 [Arcadia Quartet] [Chandos Records - CHAN 20158]
4 of 5 stars

Weinberg 

String Quartet No.2 in G, Opp.3/145 [1939-40, revised 1987]
String Quartet No.5 in B flat, Op.27 [1945]
String Quartet No.8 in C, Op.66 [1959]

Arcadia Quartet [Ana Török & Răsvan Dumitru (violins), Traian Boală (viola) & Zsolt Török (cello)]
Recorded at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk on 4-6 March 2020


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: March 2021
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 20158
Duration: 68 minutes

The music of Mieczysław Weinberg, or Moisey Vainberg as we used to call him, has lately emerged from the shadows. Was he a major independent voice or a mere acolyte, a Shostakovich clone with a Polish-Jewish accent?  With his sometime protector’s star so much in the ascendant, Weinberg’s music enjoys much wider dissemination than ever it did in their lifetimes. Problems remain however, not least because the younger man was so unstoppably fecund. The cellist and academician Alexander Ivashkin went so far as to count him among those Soviet-era composers whose work threatened to devalue the musical vocabulary associated with his master. Even if the influence went both ways, the jury is still out for some of us, notwithstanding the professionalism and skill on display in works like the seventeen String Quartets.

Perhaps a recorded cycle as open-hearted as this one promises to be will make all the difference. We already have a highly regarded set from the Quatuor Danel on CPO but some will prefer the more opulent tonal profile projected by the Translyvanian group even if it is their rivals who achieve the finer tonal blend. The players’ warmth and engagement is never in doubt, amplified by the generous sonics associated with the Chandos label.

Non-specialist listeners may find all three works familiar to some degree though for different reasons. The Eighth Quartet (1959) must be one of the composer’s most frequently recorded pieces. It was taped by its dedicatees, the Borodin Quartet of the Rostislav Dubinsky era, and this is its fourth recording in the present century. Of modest dimensions it plays continuously while falling into clearly defined sections.

The other two featured Quartets were revisited by the composer near the end of his life and refashioned into Chamber Symphonies, rather short-circuiting the observation sometimes made by aficionados that Weinberg’s sparser, explicitly linear invention made him a more natural composer of Quartets than his friend. The fabric of the Second Quartet, originally composed in 1939-40, was also revisited at that time. Given its quirky neo-classical profile, the first movement arguably benefits from the neater take of the Quatuor Danel, closer to the microphone yet technically hard to fault. The half-lit third movement is marked Allegretto – like so many later Shostakovich utterances whose profundities are camouflaged with that neutral indication.

The wartime Fifth Quartet is sparer and strikes deeper though the lack of idiomatic distance between the two compositional voices can seem problematic. The score was dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, an ensemble inextricably linked with Shostakovich’s output.  Still, it was the short-lived Hans Rott whose work influenced Gustav Mahler and not the other way round so perhaps we shouldn’t make assumptions. Again the Arcadia Quartet gives the slower music remarkable space and poetry, while sounding less focused in the ‘Humoreske’, a gently Hebraic cakewalk, and the driven Scherzo, music that comes peculiarly close to rerunning the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio.

If the first staging of The Passenger, Weinberg’s mid-Sixties opera based on the novel by Polish Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz, did not clinch the matter for you one way or the other, this series just might. David Fanning provides enthusiastic notes which even manage to discuss the works in the order in which they appear on the disc. And the members of the Arcadia Quartet contribute their own loving encomium: “His music is like a glow of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown, and it quickly became a goal of ours to attempt to dilute these shadows. With every recording and every live performance of his music, we intend to shine some light on this wide-ranging, profound phenomenon, which has remained overlooked for so long, and we hope that, with time, Mieczysław Weinberg will take his rightful place in the history of music.” I will just have to persevere.

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