What's in a Name? Weinberg (or Vainberg) is a Composer Well Worth Discovering

I would imagine that for a composer, there are few fates worse than an international disagreement on how to spell your name!  How will you possibly be remembered, given the thousands of composers out there, when your work is divided in people's minds between two or even three different names?  
Such is the fate of Mieczslaw Weinberg. You might have encountered him as Moise (or Moishe, or Moisey) Vainberg (or Vaynberg), or even Wajnberg, his name in the original Polish. Born in Warsaw in 1919, he fled the Holocaust in 1939--much of his family did not survive it--and settled in Russia, where he remained until his death in 1996. Weinberg's name suffered mutilation through transliteration from the Cyrillic alphabet, so that in the West we knew him as Vainberg much of the time. On record shelves, in catalogues, wherever music is transmitted or purchased or ordered, he might appear under Weinberg or Vainberg--thus splitting his identity.

I have grown more and more fond of his music, and I do sometimes like to call attention to composers whose music has caught my fancy and with whom I think readers of this blog might not be familiar. I have long known a few of the pieces, but I used the recent holiday season to explore his work in depth. The main criticism one hears--that this music is "second rate Shostakovich"--is truly unfair. There is no question that he was very strongly influenced by Shostakovich; the two were close friends and musical colleagues. But one rarely hears Beethoven being criticized for being influenced by Mozart, or Brahms by Beethoven. The important issue is whether the music speaks to us with a meaningful emotional connection, and at least for myself I can answer loudly in the affirmative.

Weinberg (I am using the spelling that is increasingly common in the English-speaking world, including the most recent Grove) suffered in the Soviet Union from being Jewish, found his music banned at times, and was arrested in February 1953 and charged with "Jewish bourgeois nationalism." Stalin's death in March of that year may well have saved him. It is thought that Weinberg is to a large degree responsible for Shostakovich's interest in Jewish themes, as heard in his Piano Trio and in the cycle "From Jewish Folk Poetry."

The more music I hear by this composer, the more I hear his own voice--despite the echoes of Shostakovich. His output is vast: 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, operas, film scores, songs and instrumental sonatas galore. I would say that if you do not find resonance in Shostakovich's music, you probably won't find anything appealing in Weinberg. But if you believe, as I do, that Shostakovich was one of the truly important composers of the 20th century--to me his importance grows the more I hear his work, a process that has gone on for about 50 years in my case--then I think you'll find much to love in Weinberg.

I have a few suggestions on where to start--remember, depending on where you look you might find these works under Weinberg or Vainberg (the latter is the most common alternative spelling). The Chandos label is in the midst of a cycle of all 22 symphonies; a great disc to begin the exploration is Chandos 10128, which contains the Fifth Symphony and Sinfonietta No. 1. Both works are very strong, and Gabriel Chmura's performances are crackling with intensity. This might be the ideal introduction to Weinberg's music--if the disc doesn't connect with you, I'd probably stop trying.  Another superb disc is the first volume of his complete songs, featuring Children's Songs, Beyond the Border of Past Days, and Rocking the Child. Soprano Olga Kalugina, mezzo Svetlana Nikolayeva, and pianist Dmitri Korostelyov seem to have a very strong identification with the songs, and the result is touching.  Another symphonic disc of stature is a Melodiya CD (10 00986) featuring his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies--the latter with a boys' choir--in very strong performances led by one of Russia's great conductors from a previous generation, Kiril Kondrashin. And finally, there is a classic 1964 live recording of Vainberg's Cello Concerto, with Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky conducting (Russian Disc RD CD 11 111).  Any of these are good places to enter the world of this composer. If you do, I hope you find it as welcoming and gratifying a world as I do.

February 20, 2009 4:45 PM | | Comments (2)



The Danel String Quartet are performing all 17 quartets this week -starting 17th November- at the University of Manchester, (Martin Harris centre for performing arts). Well worth hearing!

Weinberg/Vainberg fans near Manchester, England, this seems a wonderful opportunity.

I can second Mr. Fogel's recommendations of Weinberg's / Vainberg's music, having heard several of the Chandos CDs in question. Naxos also has one CD of his music, his Violin Concerto, paired with the Violin Concerto of Nikolai Miaskovsky (Naxos 8.557194), which I have myself.


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