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Violin Sonatas
Weinberg • Shostakovich
1 CD | 66min | Nr. 93.190
CD 1: » Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano
» Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Sonata No. 4 op. 39 for Violin and Piano
» Dimitri Schostakowitsch: Sonata G major op. 134

On January 8, 1969, a new work by Dmitry Shostakovich was presented behind closed doors in the rooms of the Composers’ Association of the USSR in Moscow. The Sonata for Violin and Piano op. 134, completed several weeks earlier, was played by the brilliant violinist David Oistrach with Mieczyslaw (Moisei) Weinberg on the piano. It was not for the first time that the two musicians performed together. In 1967, they played the premiere of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, together with Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich. Another concert – on February 6, 1953 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, at which Oistrach and Weinberg had cooperated in the premiere performance of Weinberg’s »Moldavian Rhapsody« – is likely to have made a particular impression in Weinberg’s memory. The night immediately following this triumphant concert, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police and disappeared in the dreaded »Lubyanka« prison (whose name in Russia still stands for torture and death). Weinberg was spared the fate of millions of other victims of the Stalin era Gulag, however. The composer, who by his own admission so feared torture that he would have been willing to agree to even the most absurd accusations, was nonetheless released a mere four months later. Stalin’s death in March of 1953 had saved Weinberg, whose frail health would otherwise have left him no chance of surviving a longer stay in the Gulag.

This was but one of the tragic episodes in Weinberg’s life. He was born in Warsaw, where his father, who came from Moldavia, had sought refuge from the gruesome Kishinev pogrom. His extraordinary musical talent appeared early in life. At the tender age of ten he was already assisting his father, who worked as a composer and violinist at a Jewish theater. At twelve he was accepted to the Warsaw Conservatory. He had just completed his piano course when German troops attacked Poland in 1939. Weinberg fled eastward on foot, together with his younger sister, who soon found herself unable to bear the hardships and returned to Warsaw. Like his parents and other family members, his sister was also later murdered by the Germans. Weinberg was luckier at that time, saving himself by reaching the Soviet Union, and was even able to start studying composition at the Minsk Conservatory. However, the war caught up with him again as early as in June 1941, forcing him to flee once more, this time to Tashkent. There he got to know and soon married young Natalia Vovsi, daughter of the famous Jewish actor Solomon Michoels (Vovsi). In 1943, Shostakovich enabled the young couple to come to Moscow, where Weinberg spent the rest of his life.

Shostakovich held Weinberg in high esteem, admitting him to his closest circle of friends. Although Weinberg never studied with Shostakovich, he repeatedly declared himself to be his pupil. Unfortunately, his propinquity to Shostakovich in both the artistic and human sense of the term, although on the one hand an important source of inspiration for Weinberg, also had a negative effect on the reception of his works. All too often Weinberg was derided as »little Shostakovich«, as one of the great master’s many »copyists«. A serious scrutiny of Weinberg’s music – which even today is still largely nonexistent – would readily prove that it is evinces not only extraordinary strength, but also a remarkable independence. Clear examples of this are Weinberg’s Third and Fourth Sonatas for Violin and Piano, both of which were written in 1947. The Third Sonata has a three-movement form, its development culminating in the final movement. The use of Jewish melodic elements is striking (especially in the second and third movements), although they do not conjure up associations with folklore, but are instead laden with symbolism, for the most part tragic. The Fourth Sonata is basically a single movement whose fast middle section (sixteenths racing uninterruptedly, whipped on by the rhythmic accompaniment – racing away, fleeing, perhaps?) is framed by slow segments. One episode (at first on Track 4: 4’21) reveals a conspicuous similarity to the last movement of the »Quatuor pour la fin du Temps« by Olivier Messiaen in its violin melody floating transcendently, as it were, over the piano’s softly repeating chords.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano by Dmitry Shostakovich is one of those works written in the »field of gravity«, so to speak, of his 14th Symphony. Shostakovich himself, in the memoirs compiled by Solomon Volkov, mentions the defining mood of those times, »Fear of death is perhaps the strongest feeling a person can have. Sometimes I think there can hardly be a deeper, more intense feeling at all. The irony is that people create great poetry, prose and music particularly when they feel the pressure of the fear of death. ... I, too, have not been spared such unpleasant thoughts. ... I have written a number of works which reflect my standpoint in this matter. They are not especially optimistic pieces. ... I believe that writing these works had a positive effect on me. My fear of death has become weaker. To put it more precisely, I have accustomed myself to the idea of the inevitable end. ... You must not allow the fear of death to take you unawares. One way to become familiar with it is to write about it.«

As can be seen clearly in the Violin Sonata, among others, unusual contrasts are typical of Shostakovich’s later style. The palette of emotions ranges from nearly autistic encapsulation and self-absorption up to explosive outbursts. Accordingly, structures change from an ascetic reduction of means to extreme density. A prominent feature of this musical idiom – albeit not the most important by far – is the copious use of twelve-tone series, which is also characteristic of the Violin Sonata.

It is by no means coincidental that twelve-tone rows did not gain admittance to the world of Shostakovich’s music until he began to undertake a serious consideration of the subject of death. The »unnatural «, »artificial« character of the twelve-tone system, in particular, in which no tone may repeated, made it suitable, in the eyes of Shostakovich, for characterizing nonhuman, transcendent, lifeless qualities. A melody marked by living human emotions would not bow to this artistic coercion. Thus twelve-tone music became for Shostakovich a symbol of the beyond, of death.

Apart from the twelve-tone rows, a connection to the musical »portrait« of death in the Violin Sonata and other works of this period is also most acutely represented by two specific intervals: the fourth and the minor second. Both are firmly rooted as symbols in European musical tradition and reflect two aspects of death. The uncaring, neutral sound of the fourth symbolizes the void (»Death is ... the absolute end. Nothing comes after. Nothing.«) and the painful interval of the minor second stands for suffering (»I am also afraid of pain and not particularly enraptured by the thought of death«).

Jascha Nemtsov

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