Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 "Kaddish" (CD Review)

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Gidon Kremer, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kremerata Baltica. DG 483 6566 GH2 (2-disc set).

By Karl W. Nehring

Occasionally a recording comes along that completely changes your opinion of a composer and his or her music. This new two-CD set has recently and rather startlingly done that for me in the case of Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996). Mind you, it was not that I did not care for his music, but rather that I had always found previous recordings of his music to be OK, but never any better than that. I always felt a sense of disappointment. I had wanted his symphonies and other orchestral works to sweep me off my feet the way that the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich had when I first heard them, but it just never came to pass.

To be honest, I was not immediately impressed when I played the first disc of this two-CD set, his Symphony No. 2, a string symphony here performed by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. It struck me as, well, OK, but that was about it. Given my underwhelmed reaction to the first disc in the set, it took me another day to muster enough enthusiasm to audition the second disc.

What a difference a day makes! Twenty-four little hours later, I found myself fascinated by Symphony No. 21 "Kaddish" (the term refers to a Jewish prayer), which is played by the combined forces of Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica plus the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, all under the direction of conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. Here was a piece that reminded both of Mahler and Shostakovitch in its intensity of expression and sometimes chamber-music-like employment of orchestral forces. Having been so impressed by No. 21, I made a determination to listen to both symphonies over and over again, and so I did -- in my car, my living room, and in my listening room. The more I listened, the more my appreciation grew – not just for No. 21, but also for No.2, another truly remarkable work.

Gidon Kremer
The first movement of Symphony No. 2, marked Allegro Moderato, opens lyrically, but soon you begin to feel a bit of an edge underlying the pleasantness. Kremer's violin weaves in and out of the sonic tapestry, and as the movement continues, the mood becomes reminiscent of some of Shostakovitch's music with its skittishness and underlying tension. The movement, which in some ways resembles a miniature symphony on itself, becomes agitated and ends abruptly, followed by the second movement, marked Adagio, which opens with a plaintive melody. The movement becomes more serious and reflective as it goes along, finally ending in a whisper. The third movement, marked Allegretto, returns to a mood more like the first movement, building up tension with repeated motifs as the music becomes more and more intense but then again ends in a whisper.

As for Symphony No. 21, violinist Kremer, who has played and recorded much of Weinberg's music over many years, remarks in the liner notes that "it was actually as if one had discovered Mahler's Eleventh Symphony. A musical monument that sets to music one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century." Conductor Gražinyte-Tyla notes of the work that it poses a special challenge to both the orchestra and the conductor. "It is hard to string this enormous bow. The reason is that long passages are dominated entirely by a solo voice and various chamber ensembles while the gigantic orchestral apparatus of almost 100 musicians sits on the stage… the deeper we dive into the music, and the more closely we study this work, the more beautifully it begins to radiate."

The symphony is constructed as one giant movement, with six sections marked but flowing into each other without pause. As Gražinyte-Tyla remarked, there are many instances featuring small groupings and soloists playing prominent roles, including violin, clarinet, piano, double-bass, and in the closing minutes, a soprano voice – surprisingly, that of Gražinyte-Tyla herself. But there are also passages featuring boisterous contributions from brass, percussion, woodwinds, and strings. Under Gražinyte-Tyla's direction, it all hangs together beautifully, and has been captured in splendid sound by the engineering team.

As I stated at the outset, there are recordings that make you change your opinion of a composer. Having been so entranced by this remarkable recording of these two splendid symphonies, I plan to seek out more recordings of Weinberg's music to see what further treasures I might be able to unearth. Ah, the joys of music!


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa