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The complete quartets of Mieczysław Weinberg are now available as a box set

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At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the latest ECM New Series release from Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica devoted entirely to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, whose works Kremer planned to feature when taking Kremerata Baltica on a tour of the United States. I described Weinberg as a “prodigious” composer, since the count of his published works runs to Opus 153 and includes 22 symphonies, seventeen string quartets, eight violin sonatas (three without accompaniment), 24 preludes for cello, six cello sonatas (four without accompaniment), six piano sonatas, and seven operas. Another ensemble that has decided to champion Weinberg, focusing on the string quartet canon, has been Quatuor Danel, consisting of violinists Marc Danel and Gilles Millet, violist Vlad Bogdanas, and cellist Guy Danel.

Between 2006 and 2009 this ensemble recorded all seventeen quartets, along with two short early pieces, an aria and a capriccio, in the Köln studios of WDR 3 for German public broadcasting. Recordings were released in a series of six CDs by the German label cpo. As of the end of last month, the entire collection is now available as a box set.

Weinberg was born into a Jewish family in Warsaw on December 8, 1919, making him younger than Dmitri Shostakovich by a little more than thirteen years. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, shortly before fleeing to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. After arriving there, he met Shostakovich for the first time; and the two became close friends. Indeed, Shostakovich’s influence was so powerful that one listening to Weinberg’s quartets might confuse them with a “mother lode” of seventeen previously undiscovered quartets by Shostakovich.

This is not to accuse Weinberg of being imitative. It would be fairer to say that the friendship between these two composers was grounded in the extent to which their worldviews overlapped. Nevertheless, perhaps because of his escape from the Nazis, Weinberg tended to be more conscientious about “playing it safe.” Thus, one does not encounter the more daring side of the young Shostakovich’s rhetoric; nor does one encounter the anguish of the older composer’s having to endure denunciation by the Soviet authority twice. Even so, Weinberg could not keep himself entirely out of trouble. He was arrested for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in February of 1953. Shostakovich tried to intercede, but it is most likely that what really saved Weinberg was the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5 of that year.

There will always be a question of whether or not Shostakovich’s music was an encrypted biographical account of his turbulent relationship with the Soviet government, particularly under the extreme authoritarianism of Stalin. His widow called his fifteen quartets a “diary, the story of his soul,” which inspired Wendy Lesser to write the book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets. I have previously suggested that one could take a similar approach to the fifteen symphonies.

It may be that, with this emerging interest in Weinberg’s prolific output, some scholar will take a similar approach to his own biography. Personally, I have my doubts. One key reason that Weinberg’s life was so much less turbulent than Shostakovich’s was that his profile was so much lower. He never had to worry about his music causing offense because, for the most part, that music was ignored. Furthermore, he may well have preferred to stay in the shadows, having seen what happened to those who dared to rise from them under not only Stalin but also Adolf Hitler.

Nevertheless, the canon of Weinberg’s string quartets is a highly expressive body of work. It may not break down neatly into the sorts of periods that categorize the quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven (or, if we accept Lesser’s line of reasoning, Shostakovich). Nevertheless, each of the seventeen quartets definitely sings with its own unique voice.

In making the recordings, Quatuor Danel decided not to provide a chronological ordering. Rather, each individual CD amounts to a single recital program. Most of them sample three quartets from significantly different dates. (The first volume consists of only two quartets.) Then, within each of those recordings, the dates are ordered chronologically. This may not define any kind of “journey;” but it definitely helps the listener appreciate the diversity that emerged over the course of Weinberg’s effort to compose music for string quartet. This may not be music for “marathon listening;” but each individual CD definitely makes for a highly engaging listening experience.

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