Classical CD Reviews

WEINBERG: Complete Piano Works 4 — Piano Sonata No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 5; Two Fugues; Piano Sonata No. 6 – Allison Brewster Franzetti, p. – Grand Piano

This series should prove another milestone on the road to redefining Weinberg’s status.

Published on June 7, 2013

MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG: Complete Piano Works 4 — Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 31; Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 58; Two Fugues for Ludmila Berlinskaya; Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 73 – Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano – Grand Piano GP 611, 64:36 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This is the fourth in a series of complete piano music by Weinberg from Grand Piano and the second I’ve heard, graced by the magisterial playing of Allison Brewster Franzetti. “Graced” may express my feelings about Franzetti’s playing, but it’s an ironic verb in connection with Weinberg’s Third Piano Sonata, which heads this program. Written in 1946, it is cast in an austere neo-Classical mold which immediately challenges the notion that Weinberg is a mere imitator of his friend and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich (a notion that’s luckily a decade or so out-of-date). Bleak, depressive, and ironic Shostakovich may often be, especially in the later works, but I can’t think of a piece by Shostakovich that has quite the sense of austerity nearing desolation of Weinberg’s Third Sonata. Austerity, after all, implies a certain sense of objectivity, and rarely is Shostakovich objective in his music.

Indeed, the choice of a neo-Classical approach injects a ready-made objectivity into the music. David Fanning, in his interesting and well-written notes to this recording, says it is an approach “that Weinberg could easily have inherited from Prokofiev’s Fifth Sonata or Shostakovich’s Second. . . ,” but then he goes on to say that Weinberg’s sonata is ultimately like neither of these models. The long first movement, strangely marked Allegro tranquillo, may, indeed, be conventionally tranquil in spots, but its angry development section and explosive outbursts along the way paint the movement as anything but relaxed. Perhaps the marking of the movement is ironic, or perhaps Weinberg is subtly stating that mid-twentieth-century tranquility is far different from, say, mid-nineteenth-century tranquility. In fact, except for certain passages that are, indeed, like eddies of tranquility in the stream, the music has an impatient edginess that’s anything but soothing. The movement is “cast in the exotic key of G sharp minor,” which note-writer Fanning thinks Weinberg may have adopted after hearing the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), with its similar combination of lamentation and protest.

Relaxation of a sort comes in the variations-form second movement, though an air of tragic acceptance seems to hover over this movement as well. Weinberg chose to cap his sonata with a fugue, carrying on his somewhat fractured dialog with the musical past, but it has the same restless energy—or, to coin an oxymoronic phrase that seems more and more to describe this piece as I listen to it—a static energy that seems to speak of exhaustion and anxiety at once, probably a typical reaction to the harrowing war years just past.

If the Sixth Sonata of 1960—Weinberg’s last, though he was to live another thirty-six years—has a less sustained emotional landscape, part of that has to do with length. It’s a brief (fourteen minutes) sonata, and so, like Weinberg’s earliest sonatas, more aphoristic in nature. Also, as with some of Beethoven’s late sonatas, it is cast in only two movements, and so contrast rather than synthesis seems to be the main thrust of the piece. It starts with a rather stately Adagio that briefly, toward the end, seems to introduce elements of folk music: it almost sounds like a subdued evocation of a klezmer band. According to Fanning, the middle section of this movement “is a more personal andante lament.” But if so, the lament is so subtle as to approach what psychologists term “blank affect,” which is certainly characteristic of one stage of grieving. The concluding movement, “a sort of fugue,” is much livelier, with a harried feel to it as it lurches along—maybe something slightly demonic as well. So this sonata is a true study in contrasts.

The Fifth Sonata of 1951, which Fanning says was greatly influenced by Shostakovich’s monumental collection 24 Preludes and Fugues, is finely crafted—the strangely obsessive canonic writing in the first movement arrests the ear right from the start—but it seems to me somewhat less personal than the other sonatas. Consequently, I’ll turn to it less often than I will to the other works on this program—or to the Fourth Sonata, which was the flagship of Volume 2 in this series. Nonetheless, all these works represent a marked advance over Weinberg’s earlier piano pieces, including the first two sonatas, and help paint a portrait of a musician who has fortunately emerged from the shadows of his more famous Russian contemporaries.

Again, Allison Franzetti seems the perfect advocate for Weinberg’s music, not only because she has the technical chops to play this often obsessive, astringent, steely music, but because she gets inside the music as well, sympathizing with Weinberg’s often troubling world view in a way that brings it home to a listener—at least to this listener. If you’ve been collecting this series, there’s no reason to hesitate. If you haven’t been and would like an entrée to Weinberg’s piano music, this should certainly fill the bill.

—Lee Passarella




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