January 2024 Classical Record Reviews

Weinberg: Dawn, Op.60, Symphony No.12, Op.114
BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds, cond.
Chandos 20165 (CD, reviewed as 24/96). 2023. Brian Pidgeon, Mike George, prods.; Stephen Rinker, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Warsaw-born Mieczysław Weinberg, whose parents worked in the Yiddish Theater and died in a Nazi concentration camp, began a close friendship with Shostakovich. Citing their meeting as the time his life was born anew, Weinberg shared with Shostakovich a history of persecution by Soviet authorities. Shostakovich championed Weinberg's work and interceded on his behalf after his arrest in 1953 on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism."

As much as Weinberg was his own man stylistically, many of his works reflect the strong influence of Shostakovich and other composers. The 17-minute Dawn, dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, was composed in 1957 during the same months that Shostakovich wrote his shattering Symphony No.11 "The Year 1905." Perhaps the reason Dawn received its posthumous premiere in 2019, when Storgårds conducted it with the BBC Philharmonic, is that it possesses a far milder symphonic language that fails to establish a truly unique voice. Dawn, though, has extended passages of beauty, engaging sections of conflict, and a 55-second victory-celebration conclusion virtually obligatory at the time and place.

Weinberg began his Symphony No.12, "In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich," 18 years later, shortly after Shostakovich died. It's far more original and compelling. The Twelfth's 20-minute opening movement begins emphatically with multiple exclamation points that, to me, evoke the big, strong steps of a marching battalion. Beyond its eerie passages and militaristic clashes lie deep sadness. Militarism reasserts itself in the horn procession at the start of the second movement allegretto. Shostakovich's influence arises in subsequent circus-like, macabre passages, but the symphony's somber conclusion is as unique as it is haunting.—Jason Victor Serinus

Nielsen: Violin Concerto, Flute Concerto, Clarinet Concerto
Bomsori, violin; Ulla Miilmann, flute; Johnny Teyssier, clarinet; Danish National Radio Symphony/Fabio Luisi
Deutsche Grammophon (downloadable WAV files)
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Hearing Nielsen's three concerti cheek-by-jowl points up the composer's "tics": the short motifs building into larger structures; the back-and-forth ostinatos; the little woodwind duets. In all three scores, the reigning turbulence will suddenly melt into repose only to work back into a lather shortly afterward; when extended cadenzas arrive, they feel "too early." The style is both more advanced and more accessible than, say, late Sibelius.

The Violin Concerto offers few flashy display opportunities but requires formidable technique and musicianship. The performance reveals its stature and substance. The luminous soloist, Bomsori, soars lyrically above the orchestra and brings the cadenza-like passages a rhapsodic spontaneity. Wind colors are lovely, particularly the searching oboe and velvety horn.

In the Clarinet Concerto, Teyssier produces a suave tone, infusing the first movement's outbreaks and flourishes with panache and the right amount of "crazy," starting the cadenza with haunting subtones and riding deftly over the Poco adagio's whirling strings. The Flute Concerto is a letdown: Miilmann's crisp, clear tone takes on an appealing, chiffy warmth in the lows, but the second movement keeps losing momentum and the through-line.

Fabio Luisi has done well by DG's Nielsen cycle, though with quirks. In the Violin Concerto's Poco adagio, the accelerating triplets sound oddly Italianate. The Danish strings are lovely, though their handoffs with the violin soloist are diffuse, and the high divisi that concludes the Clarinet Concerto doesn't shimmer.

The warm ambience enhances Bomsori's glowing tone as she rides above the ensemble, without clouding detail. On Teyssier's close-miked clarinet, we can hear his embouchure changes.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Walker: Sinfonias 1–5
National Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
NSO0007 (CD). Blanton Alspaugh, prod.; Mark Donahue, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

I first encountered George Walker in the old Columbia Black Composers series, via a knotty, persuasive Trombone Concerto and an ambivalent Lyric for Strings. Noseda and company now introduce his five Sinfonias, spanning 1986–2016.

Walker, an avowed modernist, cited Hindemith and Stravinsky as inspirations, so his dissonant, hard-edged style should surprise nobody. It's difficult to recognize any of the movements as sonata forms, however. It's left to rhythmic repetition and momentum to generate coherent shapes.

Once past Sinfonia 1—whose ominous textures and harmonies recall 1960s TV scores—there's much to engage. In the Second, a rough start fades to lighter, contrasting textures and plaintive sustained winds, which the strings expand with intense richness; an extended flute solo, handsomely shaped and nuanced, introduces the second movement. The Third is introduced by turbulent block sonorities and doesn't immediately calm down. The agitated finale is sure-footed.

The last two sinfonias perhaps are the most satisfying. The Fourth, subtitled Strands, gets off to a gripping, forceful start, nodding strongly at tonality; there's even a melting cello solo set up by a sustained-wind "pyramid." Two spirituals are quoted; the booklet cites Ives's influence, but "A Balm in Gilead," distributed among various instruments, is more pointillist. The Fifth, Visions, is no more starkly modernist than the rest, though, inspired as it was by the 2015 Charleston shooting, it maintains a harsh tone, occasionally broken by reflective bits of Coplandesque Americana. Three vocal soloists don't sing but rather recite and declaim.

The full-bodied, rhythmically astute National Symphony, recorded live, has never sounded better; the vivid sonics offer depth and precise placement.—Stephen Francis Vasta

HappywhereIam's picture

Is there a typo in the review of the Weinberg recording? How else to reconcile the statements that Weinberg was charged with "Jewish bourgeois natioinalism" in 1953 while his work "Dawn" was posthumously premiered in 1919?

John Atkinson's picture
HappywhereIam wrote:
Is there a typo in the review of the Weinberg recording? How else to reconcile the statements that Weinberg was charged with "Jewish bourgeois natioinalism" in 1953 while his work "Dawn" was posthumously premiered in 1919?

Yes, "1919" should have been "2019." (Scroll down the page at www.amazon.com/Weinberg-Dawn-Symphony-No-12/dp/B0CG38ZQWW and see the Editorial Review.) I have corrected the text.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor/Part-time Web Monkey, Stereophile

uru975's picture

Could just be me, but all I read is sincere criticism. Criticism all too often these days is viewed negatively, while originally it was conceived as a means of examining a work of art, architecture, etc.. People have the right to disagree, but there was nothing in this article that led me to think it was either biased or taking pot shots. Perhaps the readers should form their own views or better yet, listen to the albums and hear if they agree or disagree.