Weinberg String Quartets

When one sees "Volume One" on a cover and it's of a series as vital as this one, there is much cause for celebration

Weinberg String Quartets

When one sees "Volume One" on a cover and it's of a series as vital as this one, there is much cause for celebration.

The composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also spelled Vainberg, 1919-96) is most often mentioned, if at all, alongside the name of Shostakovich. Born in Poland, Weinberg's journey, diminated by Nazi invasions, moved from Warsaw to Minsk, from Minsk to Tashkent and form Tashkent to Moscow. Shostakovich was both mentor and friend to Weinberg.

Weinberg wrote 17 string quartets. The easy invention of the first movement of the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 3 / 145 (1939/45) offers a seamless way into this corpus of work; especially with a quartet like the Arcadia, technically perfect and supremely attuned to Weinberg's voice.

This quartet was composed under the tutorship of his teacher Vassily Zolotaryov (who himself was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov). The double opus number is as it is given on the Chandos documentation: the Quartet is Op. 3, but Weinberg rescored it for string orchestra as his First Chamber Symphony, Op. 145 many years later - 1987, in fact - at which point he added revisions to the Quartet (which he also labelled as Op. 145!). Let's not get bogged down in musicological labelling; that serenade-like first movement is highly appealing and high contrast with the  second movement (initially Andante, but including a more active, Scherzo-like Allegro). It has been suggested the work influenced Shostakovich's own Second and Sixth Quartets. The helter-skelter finale is a fabulous ride, but for me the wispy, elusive third movement is the work's  heart, fully pointing to Weinberg's mastery (it is also marked "Allegretto," a seemingly innocuous indication that, just like in the music of Shostakovich, can mask a multitude of profundities):

I don't really want to spoil the fun by excerpting the finale: suffice it to say the end is zany, manic and really quite outrageous!

The Fifth Quartet (1945) blissfully has only one opus number, 27; it is dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, an ensemble that was inextricably linked with Shostakovich's quartet output. The five movements of Weinberg's Fifth Quartet all have titles: Melodie; Humoreske; Scherzo; Improvisation; Serenade. Weinberg's economy of means is remarkable, and as David Fanning's excellent notes point out (he is a pre-eminent expert on Russian music), this sparseness, so very different from the writing of the Second Quartet, foreshadows Shostakovich's writing in the same vein. As in Shostakovich's music, too, the Quartet includes extremes of stasis and loneliness (Melodie; Improvisation) and driving energy (the Scherzo) alongside clear references to popular musics (the slinky dance of the Serenade). It's worth quoting the first movement for its clear songfulness:

... but my how the finale ends hanging in the air, out of which emerges the opening movement of the Eighth Quartet, Op. 66 (1959), the best known of Weinberg's canon in the West. The first movement is like one of those slow Shostakovich deconstructed dances of death; macabre shadows of happier times. The Arcadia Quartet describes Weinberg's music as "a glow of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown," and that's something that really speaks when one hears his music. The intensity of the central panel of the work (it is in one continuous movement, subdivided into three setions) is rekarkable, not least here as the Arcadia Quartet offers all the vibrancy of a live performance allied to the accuracy afforded by studio recording:

Formed in 2006, the Arcaidia Quartet won the 2012 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition and the 2014 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition. As early in its history as 2009, it won the International Chamber Music Competition in Hamburg.

Elsewhere, the Danel String Quartet recorded all 17 Quartets for cpo, released between 2007 and 2012. The music there lasts a total of some 437 minutes, so there's plenty to come here on Chandos.

Recorded just shortly prior to the first lockdown (Potton Hall, March 4-6, 2020), this is a major release.