Some reissues on compact disc

Writing in Pravda in 1965, the composer Yuri Levitin (b. 1912) drew attention to a neglected "middle group" of composers stranded between the generation of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Shebalin, and the young avant-garde (Denisov, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Tishchenko, Eshpai, et al). Among those he listed, omitting himself, were Boris Tchaikovsky (b.1925) and Mieczyslaw (Moishei) Vainberg. He might have added Gavril Popov (b.1904), Alexander Lokshin (b.1920), and Galina Ustvolskaya (b.1919). Most of these were Shostakovich pupils, the Polish-born Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Vainberg being particularly close to the great man.

Fleeing the Nazis to the USSR in 1939, Vainberg (pronounced "vine-berg") settled in Minsk before moving on to Tashkent when Hitler invaded in 1941. In 1943 he sent Shostakovich the score of his First Symphony, whereupon the older composer engineered an official invitation to Moscow. Vainberg became his junior colleague and had begun to build a reputation before the 1948 crackdown, when he was approved by Khrennikov for stressing the Jewish side of his music - malevolent praise in view of Stalin's post-war anti-semitism. Indeed it was Vainberg's overt Jewishness (and the fact that his wife was the daughter of actor Solomon Mikhoels) which caused his arrest in 1953. According to Kirill Kondrashin, Shostakovich "inundated" Stalin and Beria with letters pleading for his release. Luckily Stalin died and his intended pogrom of 1953 lapsed, leaving Vainberg to pursue a career which, by 1988, had produced no less than twenty-two symphonies.

Anyone interested in Shostakovich will find the work of Vainberg instructive. Theirs was a unique compositional relationship in which, thanks to living in the same Moscow block, influence ran to and fro between them on a daily basis. Vainberg revered Shostakovich for showing him "a new continent" in music and called himself his mentor's "flesh and blood". He performed the four-hand piano reductions of Shostakovich's Tenth and Twelfth symphonies (with the composer and Boris Tchaikovsky respectively) at their auditions in the Composers' Union, acted as consigliere in the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring before the première of the Thirteenth, and depped for Sviatoslav Richter at the first outings of the Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok and the Violin Sonata. In return, Shostakovich dedicated his Tenth Quartet to Vainberg and unfailingly enthused about his music (especially his 1968 opera The Passenger, which he called "an amazing work").

Few of Vainberg's works are familiar in Russia, let alone in the West. The reissued symphony recordings, for example, effectively exhaust his recorded symphonic repertoire. (Only the Melodiya LP recording of the Fourth remains to be transferred to compact disc.) All the more scandalous that the music in them, while admittedly variable, is often so good - close to Shostakovich without being slavish (and certainly not as masterful), yet personal, cogent, and with a big emotional kick.

The Fifth Symphony is specially intriguing in that it adopts the two-note motif of Shostakovich's Fourth (premiered just before it was written), acknowledging the debt with an allusion to that work's eerie celesta-led coda. In fact the "influence" seems to have been mutual, the dotted duple rhythm in Vainberg's finale (10:52) turning up at the climax of Shostakovich's "Babi Yar", written later in the same year. With its echoes of Nielsen and taut control of a 45-minute span, Vainberg's Fifth is an eloquent work, its dissident message intelligible to anyone who understands a little of the Soviet ethos. Kondrashin's performance is exemplary (as is that of Vainberg's Trumpet Concerto, a brilliant confrontational drama between vulgar burlesque and desperate tragedy).

If Vainberg's formal fault as a symphonist is a tendency to overexploit plain ideas, newcomers to his music are likely to notice this less than his disconcerting similarity of tone to Shostakovich. (For instance, the desolate passacaglia Largo of his Flute Concerto of 1961 sounds uncannily like something a below-par Shostakovich might have written around 1950.) Yet Vainberg's Fifth is far from unique in suggesting that the exchange of influence between these composers was mutual.

No one would deny that the second and fifth movements of Vainberg's Sixth Symphony parallel their equivalents in Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony closely. Likewise, Vainberg's subject (Nazi massacres of Jewish children) derives - if only in the most immediate sense - from "Babi Yar". (His family were burned alive by the Nazis in Warsaw.) On the other hand, the brutally peremptory timpani of Vainberg's Sixth (III) seem to have come to Shostakovich's mind while writing his Second Cello Concerto and Second Violin Concerto a few years later. Similarly, the skirling "Malagueña" in Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony appears to be based on the central 3/8 passage in Vainberg's tumultuous scherzo (3:38 et seq.). In fact he may even have been moved to orchestrate From Jewish Folk Poetry by Vainberg's score (which, like the ninth movement of Shostakovich's cycle, ironically subverts the lie of Socialist Realist optimism in its finale).

Brilliant in many of its pages, Vainberg's Sixth deserves the attention of any serious admirer of Shostakovich - and by no means solely because of its manifest connections with the latter's work. This is music of the "school of Shostakovich", but fine and sometimes great music in its own right.

The Seventh Symphony is a fascinating instance of Vainberg and Shostakovich treading so closely in each other's footsteps that it is hard to distinguish who is following whom. It appears to have been written during the summer of 1964 between the composition of Shostakovich's Ninth Quartet (May) and Tenth Quartet (July), perhaps overlapping the completion of one and the start of the other. (On 21st July, Shostakovich wrote to Isaak Glikman that he'd finished his Tenth and dedicated it to Vainberg. He was particularly pleased with this because, in 1963, Vainberg had "overtaken" him by writing a Ninth Quartet and now, with his own Tenth, he'd regained the lead!)

Steeped in the language of Shostakovich's quartets, Vainberg's Seventh Symphony is cast in a continuous sequence of five movements, of which the last is an extended finale - in other words, mirroring the lay-out of Shostakovich's Ninth Quartet. A delicate work, it is one of its composer's most fecund creations, bristling with restlessly proliferating ideas, among the best of which is the ghostly Jewish dance of its central Andante. A superb finale quotes obliquely from the passacaglia theme of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto (III) whilst providing Shostakovich with some cues for his Tenth Quartet. This accomplished piece makes it easy to understand why Shostakovich so admired Vainberg's work. (Though differently credited, the recording of the Twelfth Symphony with which it is coupled is the same as the one paired with the Flute Concerto on Russian Disc.)

While Bartokian in some aspects, Vainberg's stark, dissonant, and emotionally ferocious Tenth Symphony was probably inspired by the republication in 1967 (after being out of print for 20 years) of Shostakovich's Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 - and perhaps, too, by the appearance, in 1968, of Barshai's arrangement of Shostakovich's Tenth Quartet (Symphony for Strings, Op. 118a). The violent cadenzas in Shostakovich's Second Violin Concerto are likewise suggested by Vainberg's solo interludes; yet his score transcends the derivative by virtue of its sheer intensity, while its limping Jewish "Burlesque" hints that Shostakovich's similar themes of the late Forties were influenced as much by listening to Vainberg as by studying Jewish popular music in the raw.

All the more puzzling, then, that Vainberg's 50-minute Twelfth Symphony (dedicated, with manifest passion, to Shostakovich's memory) sounds initially less like him than anything else here, evoking instead Hindemith and Stravinsky. However, its structure and language soon reveal that not only is it a classic Shostakovichian study of the individual under totalitarianism, but that it is modelled on the older composer's Fourth Symphony. Yet, for all its furious ambition, Vainberg's Twelfth is less balanced or varied than the similarly-inspired Fifth, and it would be wiser to begin with that earlier work - or the Cello Concerto - before moving on to sample the Sixth and Seventh.

Vainberg's Cello Concerto is his most popular work in Russia and, to judge by Rostropovich's exciting, if sometimes rough and ready, concert performance from 1964, it thoroughly deserves this acclaim. Melodious, dramatic, and instantly communicative, it possesses a richly soulful tragic-nostalgic main theme which recurs at key moments and guides the work to a moving diminuendo conclusion. Signs of tape corruption in Rostropovich's recording spoil the pleasure at points and a close recording picks up some wiry string action. Projected at high velocity, the fearsome unison lines of the pell-mell scherzo teeter on the verge of disintegration. Despite this, the music shines through strongly enough to invite several Western recordings as soon as possible.

(The concertos by Levitin and Lev Knipper are less distinctive but equally incisive. Levitin's is the better work, centred on a passacaglia slow march reminiscent harmonically of Honegger's concerto and spiritually of the funerary Andante of Fauré's G minor sonata. As with Vainberg's Fifth, this issue will reward anyone curious about the unexplored resources of mid-century Russian music.)

A typical Soviet utility ballet, Vainberg's The Golden Key is no better nor worse than most of Shostakovich's light incidental music. Natalya Gounko's sleevenote, wildly optimistic in invoking a comparison between this consciously simple and repetitive score and Stravinsky's astonishing Petrushka, aptly quotes Vissarion Shebalin on the Soviet technique of musical recycling:

"Turning a ballet into symphonic suites is very easy: you just divide the whole score symmetrically. In order to seem self-critical and severe you may drop one or two intermediate numbers from each half - and the work is done!"
That Vainberg bothered to revise The Golden Key and then go to the trouble of turning it into four suites is explicable solely in terms of the robotic Soviet publishing system, which paid composers more or less by the bar. (Hence Shostakovich's multiple recycling of functional dross and so much of Prokofiev's "bis" opus-list.) Vainberg's score contains one modestly ear-catching number (Malvina's Dance), but otherwise this issue will interest only indiscriminate completists.

On the strength of his recorded output, Vainberg's most persuasive claim to have influenced Shostakovich is provided by his two Cello Sonatas - strong, stark works whose general simplicity and particular mannerisms anticipate the style of Shostakovich's late sonatas for Violin (1968) and Viola (1975). Coupled with them is an impressive sonata (dedicated to Vainberg) by the thus-far neglected Boris Tchaikovsky. Anyone enjoying this should try Rostropovich in the same composer's Cello Concerto (Russian Disc RDCD 11115), a devious dissident work of 1964.

Vainberg's Twelfth Quartet of 1969-70 follows Shostakovich's Twelfth Quartet of 1968 in incorporating dodecaphonic techniques. Vainberg goes considerably further than Shostakovich in pursuing the serial line and, in so doing, occasionally enters that impersonal region in which twelve-note music sounds like no one composer in particular. This is a typically resourceful work, nonetheless, and the blank face never stays long (although the usual serial mood of generalised angst remains).

As it happens, the quartet, written at the age of 60, is completely overshadowed by Vainberg's Piano Quintet, written at the age of 25, one year after first arriving in Moscow in 1943. The "interest" here is in witnessing the composer's voice before he came decisively under the influence of Shostakovich - and, indeed, the work is fascinating from that purely objective point of view. The listener won't, however, be able to maintain a cold focus for long, for this is a living masterpiece independent of comparative evaluation. Presented in a quite stunning performance by the composer with the Borodin Quartet, recorded in 1963, Mieczyslaw Vainberg's Piano Quintet is one of the most convincing and gripping compositions to be found on these discs. One can give it no higher praise than to say that it fully deserves to become the standard recording coupling for Shostakovich's own Piano Quintet of 1940. No one drawn to Russian music in the Soviet era should miss this reissue.

Mostly made over twenty years ago, these recordings are good-to-excellent as performances, and mostly very acceptable as productions, with only the Sixth Symphony's first movement coarsening badly at fff. (Unfortunately, too, Olympia was unable to edit together a side-break left over from the Sixth's LP format, while the lack of texts for this very welcome reissue is a serious omission.)

Otherwise, here is a composer in the mould of Shostakovich (sometimes overly so), yet still sufficiently gifted and forceful in his own right to demand space on your shelves. Do try him.

Compact discography. Chronology. Back to Contents.