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Friday 26 February 2021
Weinberg & Bizet/Shchedrin
Mieczysław Weinberg Symphony No 2 Op 30
Rodion Shchedrin Carmen – Suite (after Georges Bizet)
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at LSO St Luke's on 25 November 2020 in COVID-19 secure conditions and without an audience.
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Symphony No 2 Op 30
1 Allegro moderato
Weinberg’s Symphony No 2 was written in the winter of 1945–46, after most of the composer’s family had been killed in the camps of World War II.
Through the kindness of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg had made it safely to Moscow in 1943, where he tried to restart his life. The sort of tension, unease and angular deception that runs through Shostakovich’s music is heard in much of Weinberg’s too.
That is true of this symphony, even if Weinberg sounds consistently more introverted and elusive than in some of the bigger symphonies that followed later. This pared-down piece, scored for strings alone, appears to search for answers to multiple questions.
That is the case on more than one level. The music employs the traditional method of presenting a theme or melody and developing it towards a semi-conclusive end-point. Weinberg’s textures are lucid enough to reveal how he does so in this piece. The symphony is full of long, lyrical melodies, but they’re just as often aired at the bottom or middle of the texture as on top of it.
Each movement appears to grow in tension and unease before experiencing some form of benediction induced by a serene, upward-pointing violin solo.
The first movement massages a lullaby-like tune. The conversation grows in density and confrontation. We hear the hint of a sinister waltz, like a puzzling dream, before the violin begins its upward flight. A series of misty chords, referencing the main theme heard at the start, bring the music to rest.
The second movement opens up a desolate void and pours long melodies into it. Weinberg has a way of making his moments of consonance seem even more painful than the dissonance from which they emerge – the catharsis only dragging up all the horrors once more. Again, a violin sails upwards, past another cloud-like chord.
The final movement ratchets up tension with another dense conversation, this time powered by motoric energy. The music splinters into lyricism, one long tune emerging on low strings to the accompaniment of plucked strings above.
A lone violin appears to confer its blessing on the music once more, and the movement finds peace in a luminous major chord.
Note by Andrew Mellor
Born in Warsaw in 1919, Mieczysław Weinberg entered the Warsaw Conservatory aged twelve, having already joined his composer and conductor father to play piano at the Yiddish theatre some years earlier.
At the outbreak of World War II, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union, while his parents and younger sister stayed behind. They would later perish in the Trawniki concentration camp. When war broke out on Soviet territory, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent (now in Uzbekistan). It was here that he met Shostakovich, a composer who would have a profound effect on the younger Weinberg.
In 1943 Weinberg moved to Moscow on Shostakovich’s recommendation, where in the space of just five years he wrote some 30 works. Several of these were banned in 1948, and while his work was almost entirely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment, Weinberg made his living composing for theatre and circus. In 1953, five years after his father-in-law was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, Weinberg was himself arrested in relation to the murder. The death of Stalin the following month ultimately spared Weinberg, and he returned to composing and performing in Moscow.
Despite a lack of fame during his lifetime, Weinberg has been increasingly recognised as a great composer since his death in 1996. His works – among them 22 symphonies and several operas – bear the influence of Shostakovich, Jewish music, and sometimes display an element of commemoration, referencing his early life in Warsaw. His instrumental works are particularly virtuosic and technically demanding of the performers.
Composer profile by Lydia Heald
Carmen – Suite (after Georges Bizet)
1 Introduction: Andante assai
2 Dance: Allegro
3 First Intermezzo: Allegro moderato – Andante moderato –
4 Changing of the Guard: Moderato
5 Carmen's Entrance and Habañera: Allegro moderato – Quasi andante
6 Scene: Allegro moderato – Tempo precedente – Andante assai
7 Second Intermezzo: Larghetto
8 Bolero: Allegro vivo
9 Torero: Moderato con stoltezza
10 Torero and Carmen: Lento – Tempo I
11 Adagio: Andante moderato – Adagio
12 Fortune-Telling: Andantino – Andante assai
13 Finale: Allegro – Tempo precedente – Andante assai
In the early 1960s, Rodion Shchedrin was asked by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to write a ballet on the story of Carmen, the factory girl who seduces a toreador and is stabbed to death by a vengeful soldier.
Shchedrin didn’t think it possible. He believed the subject of Carmen had ‘become inseparable’ from the music used to depict her by Georges Bizet, who wrote the famous opera of the same name. Shchedrin came to the conclusion that the only way to write new music for Carmen was to re-use Bizet’s.
For the production, Shchedrin delivered a 13-movement piece for string orchestra and percussion. It was a semi-abstract narrative on the Carmen story, ‘not a slavish obeisance to the genius of Bizet,’ in Shchedrin’s words, ‘but an attempt at a creative meeting of minds.’
Shchedrin didn’t simply rearrange Bizet’s music. Instead, he treated it as raw material from which something recognisable but entirely new could be hewn. A sense of singing would be conveyed by the orchestra’s vocalising strings. Bizet’s rhythmic snap-and-crackle was polished-up using all manner of percussion instruments, tuned and unturned, which also add a fierce dramatic commentary.
Shchedrin treated Bizet’s famous melodies in a particularly interesting way. Sometimes, he leaves a tune we know unfinished, or forces us to imagine the harmonies underneath it – the heroine Carmen as seen from the other side of the stage lights, transported to a different time and place.
Shchedrin was not afraid to use such devices to make specific dramatic points. For example, Bizet’s famous 'Habañera' theme is broken into fragments in the opening Introduction, foreshadowing the tragic destruction of Carmen herself.
Using striking instrumentation for First Intermezzo and Changing of the Guard, Shchedrin dissects and reassembles key melodies including the opera’s fate motif (heard on low strings underneath a shimmering marimba).
The naïve soldier Don José appears and makes love to Carmen in the sixth movement, Scene, which uses music from the duet sung by the two characters in the opera.
In the ninth movement, Torero, we hear the famous song of the Toreador Escamillo, whom Carmen seduces to Don José’s fury. But Shchedrin plays a wicked trick on the melody, separating out its constituent phrases and putting them in the wrong order.
For two movements – Bolero and Torero and Carmen – Shchedrin borrows music not from Bizet’s Carmen, but from the composer's ballet L’Arlésienne and opera La jolie fille de Perth respectively.
In Adagio, the fate theme is played in full – again on plunging low strings – signalling Carmen’s demise, itself sealed by her turning over of the death card during Fortune-Telling.
The Finale includes music from the opera’s culminating confrontation between Carmen and Don José, who stabs the heroine to death. It incorporates a chilling repetition of music from the Prelude.
Shchedrin’s wife, Maya Plisetskaya, danced the title role when the ballet was first performed at the Bolshoi in May 1967. The work was immediately banned by the Soviets for its perceived over-sexualisation of the title character. And for ‘disrespecting’ Bizet.
Note by Andrew Mellor
Born in 1932 to a composer and music teacher, Rodion Shchedrin attended the Moscow Choral School and Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition and piano. Early on in his career, he made the decision to follow the path of composition, with his works combining traditional and modern compositional processes.
His ballet Carmen – Suite premiered at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre in 1967 to great success. Subsequent ballets for the Bolshoi, including Anna Karenina, The Seagull and Lady with the Little Dog, have brought Russian literary classics to the musical theatre stage. Further works influenced by literature include his operas Lolita and A Christmas Tale, while the influence of Russian folk and classical music, and poetry, can also be seen in his music.
Shchedrin was professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory for five years from 1964. He succeeded Shostakovich as chairman of the Composers’ Association of the Russian Federation, as per Shostakovich’s wish. Among numerous other prizes and accolades, he was awarded the Russian State Order Second Class ‘for services to his country’ in 2007.
Composer profile by Lydia Heald
In 2019 Deutsche Grammophon released Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s debut CD, a collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kremerata Baltica and Gidon Kremer, which was hailed as an essential contribution to the rediscovery of Mieczysław Weinberg's repertoire. A second recording was released by Deutsche Grammophon in November 2019, featuring works by the conductor's Lithuanian compatriot Raminta Šerkšnytė.
In the 2016/17 season Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla became Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where she follows in the footsteps of conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons.
A native of Vilnius, Lithuania, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was born into a musical family. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in choral and orchestral conducting from the University of Music and Fine Arts, Graz, Austria. After this she continued her studies at the Music Conservatories in Bologna, Leipzig and Zurich. Between 2011 and 2014 she worked as Kapellmeister at the Theater and Orchester Heidelberg and at the Konzert Theater Bern, before being appointed Music Director of the Salzburger Landestheater, a position she held between 2015 and 2017.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla came to international fame when she won the prestigious Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award in 2012. A Dudamel Fellowship at the Los Angeles Philharmonic was followed by invitations from orchestras and opera houses worldwide, and between 2014 and 2016 she was Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, then Associate Conductor between 2016 and 2017.
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