Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s (b. 1986) rendition of Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s (1919–1996) final symphony, which is dedicated “to the memory of those who were murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto,” has all the earmarks of a life-affirming Record to Die For. Rarely have I heard such hallowed silence, absolute control, and reverence for life and beauty from a conductor so young. For those willing to explore the mysteries of exquisite sadness amidst suffering, this recording cries out.
Weinberg’s six-movement, 54-minute Symphony No. 21, “Kaddish,” op. 152 (1991) derives its title from the Jewish prayer for the dead. It also serves as a heartfelt summation of the work of a composer who, in his 20th year, was forced to leave his parents and flee Warsaw to Belarus to escape the Nazis. Two years later, he was forced to flee Hitler’s forces once again. Although he settled in Russia in 1943, Weinberg was never able to escape the scourge of antisemitism. He was imprisoned in 1953 for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism;” fortunately his imprisonment was cut short due to his friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who interceded on his behalf, and the sudden death of Stalin.
For 57 years, Weinberg remained haunted by thoughts of his parents’ death in the Warsaw Ghetto and the loss of his home. These memories surface explicitly in several of his works, including the Twenty-first Symphony. It’s fair to say that many of his other compositions also bear the scars of his experience.
As the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, America’s foremost authority on death and dying, discovered upon examining drawings prisoners drew on the walls of Nazi concentration camps—butterflies emerging from cocoons—there are prayers and hopes for new life even in the darkest moments. In the extended prayer that is Weinberg’s Symphony No.21, you can feel reflections of the beauty that people clung to as they awaited death.
Symphony No. 21 opens with extended violin solos by Gidon Kremer, a Weinberg champion who has called the symphony “a musical monument that sets … one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.” Gražinytė-Tyla allows Kremer’s violin to whisper in pain and surrounds it with mesmerizing silences. The hush at the end of the first movement is extraordinary.
Portions of other movements sound the alarm as they reflect the cataclysmic horrors of Nazi roundups and concentration camps. Snatches of Jewish and frantic klezmer melodies emerge late in the symphony, but they can never break free into joy. Divided strings pave the way for Gražinytė-Tyla’s hauntingly innocent soprano in the final movement, intoning Weinberg’s wordless melodies. You may never encounter anything quite as moving as Gražinytė-Tyla’s contributions.
Deutsche Grammophon’s two-CD set, which sells for a bit more than regular price, also includes Weinberg’s Symphony No. 2 op. 30 (1946). Portions of that work are warm and lyrical—the pizzicati in the final movement are very special—but other passages scream out. Here, the strings of Kremerata Baltica sing with eloquence. I was especially moved by the piano of Georgijs Osokins in the late symphony.
Sincere thanks to Pro Studio Masters, which enabled me to download the 24/96 files that UMG is not yet equipped to provide to music critics. The recording, for which recording and mastering engineers Aleksandra Kerienė, Donatas Kielius, Vilius Keras and Baltic Mobile Recordings deserve plaudits, superbly captures the detail of massed strings as well as the resonance of Vilniaus Plokštelių Studija (Symphony No. 2) and Birmingham Symphony Hall (Symphony no. 21). Listening in high-resolution (also available from Tidal and Qobuz) should make plain why this recording is so urgently recommended.
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