The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thord Svedlund is back with a new recording in Chandos’ ongoing series devoted to orchestral works by Weinberg. This is proving a benchmark series, one that has contributed significantly to Weinberg’s reappraisal in recent years. International Record Review described the CD of concertos by Weinberg (CHAN 5064) as ‘one of the most sheerly exciting discs to come my way in a long time… a release of first importance’.
Born in Poland into a Jewish family, Mieczyslaw Weinberg fled before the German invasion in 1939 and spent most of his working life in the Soviet Union where he was a friend and neighbour of Shostakovich who did much to champion his music. He composed his Third Symphony between 1949 and 1950, shortly after the launch of Andrey Zhdanov’s ‘anti-formalism’ campaign which exhorted all Soviet composers to produce music for the People, i.e. in a broadly comprehensible language, preferably drawing on folk material. Weinberg obliged by placing a Belorussian folksong (‘What a Moon’) as a contrasting theme in the first movement, and a mazurka-like Polish folksong (‘Matek has died’) at the corresponding point in the second; the latter then transformed to produce the main theme of the finale.
This nod in the direction of official recommendations still was not enough to ensure a performance of the symphony. The premiere which had been scheduled to take place in Moscow was postponed. Later Weinberg was said to have discovered a number of ‘errors’ during rehearsals and therefore made the decision to cancel the performance. Perhaps this was simply an attempt to cover up official pressure to withdraw the work, perhaps not. In any case, Weinberg revisited the material ten years later, and the revised version was first heard in 1960 in the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow, performed by the All-Union Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk.
Weinberg composed the ballet The Golden Key in 1954 – 55 on a popular tale by Aleksey Tolstoy, which mixes elements of the story of Pinocchio with that of Petrushka, hinting too at Jack and the Beanstalk. The music itself can be heard as a gallery of the great Russian masters of orchestration, Weinberg taking us on a journey of Tchaikovskian waltzes, Rimskian brass works, flashes of Stravinsky’s Petrushka in the winds and in some of the dance rhythms, and gorgeous adagios of the sort Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet taught Russian composers how to write.