Weinberg

The second evening of the Weinberg 100 Festival in Salzburg proved somewhat zanier, with a three-hour-long mix of chamber works arranged chronologically (but certainly not thematically) from 1943-1971, and a hodge-podge of performers, professionals and amateurs (some probably future professionals) as young as 9 years old.  All of this took place in a non-ideal auditorium in the basement of a music school (Steinway Hall of the Musikum), where the lights in the rooms emitted different (and out-of-tune) humming noises audible over quieter passages.  This was an awful venue which I did not even know existed (and now know to avoid so I never have to hear a concert here again).  Some of the works on this program will be repeated (by the same performers) on the weekend in better halls, so this was in many ways a dress rehearsal.  If I was going to skip any concerts in the festival, I would have skipped this one – however, the music of Moishe Weinberg is so rarely performed, I figured I should go.

Of the pieces which will not repeat this weekend, the one that interested me the most was the String Quartet #12, performed by the Stadler Quartet.  I probably need not have worried.  Weinberg fled his native Warsaw in September 1939 and was not allowed to return until 1966.  He wrote this piece after that trip, under the influence of Polish composers Witold Lutosławski and Krzystof Penderecki, whom he spent time with there.  Neither of them had anywhere near the talent Weinberg did.  Where Weinberg’s works were musically-grounded and intellectually brilliant, his Polish colleagues produced gimmicks.  Sometimes the gimmicks worked (or were interesting enough to want to at least listen to in small amounts), but they were not in Weinberg’s league.  This string quartet suffered from the association.

Three song cycles, based on Jewish poetry (respectively opus 13 in Russian, opus 17 in Yiddish, and opus 57 in Polish) worked much better, drawing out feeling and emotions.  The first and the third of the soprano soloists were quite good: Lubov Karetnikova (she would seem from her bio to be an ethnic Russian from Lithuania, although born in the US) and Alina Martemianova (from Moscow, she trained at the Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center overlapping the time I lived in Moscow, although I don’t remember hearing her perform at the Center), both now based here in Salzburg.  They made tremendously expressive portrayals of the songs (Vishnyevskaya’s distinctive style seems to have rubbed off on Martemianova as well).  The soprano for opus 17, Brazilian Ornella de Luca had trouble with pitch, and had a tendency to shriek, so was far less pleasant.

A train of very young students performed a movement or two each from a piano cycle (opus 16, with movements from opus 19 and 23 interpolated into it).  The kids were fine, but I just cannot get myself excited about solo piano music (not everyone can be Khatia Buniatishvili at the Festival this past summer).  So how good was Weinberg’s piano music?  Hard to say.  I’ll hear one piece – his opus 73 sonata – again on Sunday with one of these child pianists.  Maybe I’ll like it more under better conditions.

As for the other pieces I will hear again this weekend, the best one was his Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra opus 42.  The chamber orchestra was not especially great, a local amateur outfit (the Salzburg University Orchestra – which despite its name is not restricted to students or faculty of the University but open to pretty much anyone – under the baton of Silvia Spinnata).  But they were also fine, and this is not one of Weinberg’s most difficult works (it’s one I do own an excellent recording of, so I already know and like the piece, and am familiar with it in a performance by Gidon Kremer and his own chamber ensemble, which is just not a fair comparison).  This evening’s violinist, Alexandra Seywald, a native of Salzburg, captured the warmth of Weinberg’s piece (which is really just a violin concerto, maybe only slightly smaller in concept than most, but still requiring the thoughtful playing that Seywald offered).

The final work of the evening, which will also repeat on the weekend, was the very peculiar Sonata for Solo Contrabass.  Actually, the work was brilliant: who writes solo music – and good solo music at that – for the bass?  The first three and last movement were performed by Verena Wurzer on a double bass, and for the fourth and fifth movements Eddie Bartlett performed on the contrabassoon.  The double bass was the better instrument, with much more complex sounds, including overtones, providing a fuller experience; the contrabassoon on its own just tended to go splat.  Would a worse double bass player and a better contrabassoonist have switched that around?  Hard to tell (I’m not sure Bartlett was not good, he just did not manage to make this work as a solo).

I suppose after three hours I left scratching my head wondering what I had just experienced.  The Weinberg works I had experienced before this evening were invariably stimulating.  I don’t know how much of this evening’s selection did not rise to that standard because the performers were not always up to the same level I am used to with this music, or because the auditorium was terrible, or because maybe these were not entirely Weinberg’s better works (other than the Concertino, which I was already familiar with).

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