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Mieczysław Weinberg lived a tragic life. Born in Poland in 1919, he escaped the Nazi invasion for the Soviet Union, where he eventually made a career in music. His family, however, perished in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism in the USSR proved to be just as oppressive, and he was arrested and detained in the “Doctor’s plot.” He wasn’t released until after Stalin’s death.
It was in music that Weinberg found his solace. Incredibly prolific, he completed over twenty symphonies, dozens of concertos and sonatas, and over two hundred songs in addition to film scores. His opera The Passenger, which relates the horrors of Holocaust, has recently received widespread international attention.
Thanks in part to that work, Weinberg’s other music is in the midst of a renaissance. Recent recordings and performances are shedding new light on a composer once relegated to history as an epigone. Spearheading this recent interest is Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who performed Weinberg’s Violin Concerto in its belated Boston premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Juanjo Mena.
Composed in 1959 and premiered by Leonid Kogan and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in 1961, the Violin Concerto bears the hallmarks of Shostakovich, who was a close friend of Weinberg’s. It has long been suggested that the composer was a pale imitator of Shostakovich’s style, but admiration went both ways. Shostakovich dedicated his Tenth String Quartet to the Polish composer, and he also held Weinberg’s music in high esteem, claiming that the Violin Concerto “is a beautiful work, in the true meaning of the word.”
Indeed it is. Its four movements are shrouded in dark lyricism. The first is one of agitation, spinning gradually from sawing figures in the strings. Parts of the second movement are sparsely textured. The orchestral accompaniment supports the solo violin with gentle chords and elegant countermelodies as serpentine wind lines slither through the bare texture. The third movement moves like a slow wave, and shimmering chords stand like water on a still lake. Here too, the orchestration is chamber-like, with winds and groaning basses supporting a glowing line in the solo violin. The finale, a buoyant Allegro, offers a brief glimpse of sunshine. In the end, the violin’s whistling phrases come to rest over a warm major chord that flickers like a light in the darkness.
The Violin Concerto is not one of brilliant showmanship; rather, it is a work of searching, inward expression. Kremer has been a champion of Weinberg’s music in recent years, having released recordings of the concerto and Piano Quintet. His playing Thursday night was marked by cool concentration, amber-rich tone, and sensitive musicality. Mena led an accompaniment of crisp precision, weaving a subtle dialogue between the winds and Kremer’s solo in key parts of the work. Together, Mena and the violinist made a strong case for Weinberg’s music. Hopefully the BSO can take on one of the composer’s many symphonies in the future.
Kremer’s encore brought more Weinberg, in this case the violinist’s stirring arrangement of the Prelude for cello, Op. 100, No. 5.
The concert opened with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1.
Named the “Classical” Symphony due to its look back to 18th-century style and form, the work gleams with a Haydnesque humor. But the music is thoroughly modern. Themes shift abruptly into distant keys, and there is a sense of taut craftsmanship. Neoclassical works such as this one, for Prokofiev, was one way out of the sumptuous thickness and emotionalism of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler.
Mena led the piece with an eye towards Haydnesque grace. The opening movement was light on its feet, with the skipping second theme taking on a gentle humor. The second movement was imbued with a singing lyricism. The violin theme spun over the accompaniment in a gleaming, vocal line. The Gavotte moved with a gentle swagger. Mena gave the piece a technicolor flourish, highlighting wind and string lines to good effect. The final movement was a whirlwind of darting figures. Kudos to the BSO woodwinds, who performed spectacularly in the movement’s rapid-fire passages.
After intermission Mena led a bracing account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
Mena, who led from memory, conducted with a keen sense of the work’s breadth. Tempos were fleet, which brought fire to the performance, particularly in the finale. Phrases were shaped in long arcs. Mena, too, kept an eye to the dance-like character that permeates the inner movements of the piece. The scherzo was nimble and swift in its pizzicato statements, and the sweeping string lines of the first movement sounded with glowing warmth.
Elsewhere, the piece beamed with fine playing from winds and brass. John Ferrillo’s oboe solo in the opening of the second movement was like a weeping willow. When bassoonist Richard Svoboda took over the theme at movement’s end, it took on an air of sweet melancholy.
The brass delivered the opening fate motive with power and precision, and added hulking weight to the climactic parts of the work. As the piece swirled to a rousing conclusion, for an instant, tragedy and fate seemed to stand at a safe distance.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200