The dark shadows of Mieczysław Weinberg’s music recall the works of his friend, mentor, and sometime protector Dmitri Shostakovich—a grim yet noble power comes to the fore in Weinberg’s moments of intense, almost Expressionistic declamation, although it’s not relieved, even periodically, by Shostakovich’s nose-thumbing sardonic humor. Maria Sławek wrote her doctoral dissertation on Weinberg’s works for violin and piano, but that in itself would hardly qualify her to play them with the authority she brings to them. She draws a rich, strong tone from her Charles Gand violin from 1817 — who says you need a Stradivari or a Guarneri? — a tone that recalls the strength of David Oistrakh’s in works by Shostakovich or Prokofiev, along with a similar sense of absolute conviction. These qualities characterize her performance, with pianist Piotr Różański, of the composer’s Fourth Sonata, from a bleak period in his life — unfortunately, all of his periods seem to have been bleak in one way or another, as both Nazis and Soviets oppressed him—and the sonata seems to reflect the period of its origin. From march-like episodes to soaring lyricism, perhaps too sinuous to sound entirely ingratiating, Sławek holds the listener’s rapt attention. The Allegro ma non troppo that follows seems to provide relief, but its more rapid tempo gives no distraction from its somewhat lean emotional power. In the finale’s transitional cadenza, it’s clear that Sławek can create an almost overwhelming impression all by herself — place a violin in her hand and be prepared to be lifted from your seat (or squashed into it).
The central piece on the program, the Sonatina from 1949, has been hailed as a more accessible work, conforming more closely to Soviet decrees from the period about the function of music in society; but it’s hardly a cheerful work, though, as Sławek remarks in her notes, it comprises many beautiful melodies. The Andante con moto that opens the Fifth Sonata brings long-breathed melodic lines spun out by the violin accompanied lightly by the piano. Weinberg’s work remains throughout mostly tonal, but that’s no guarantee of its accessibility, and the first movement, despite the way it may look on the page, seems almost forbidding, though endlessly fascinating and profoundly moving. The Allegro moltothat follows twists and turns on its harmonic bearings, and Sławek shines a strong light on it whenever she’s on stage—in fact, almost all of the time. The fast movement (scherzo?—but no joke this time) that follows seems as terrifying as that in the Sonatina, although hardly so frenetic in the duo’s reading. They begin the finale insinuatingly—the melodies that open it sound suavely appealing, but the whole soon turns more forbidding. But no matter how desolate the composer’s expressivity may grow, the duo never makes the music sound anything but vibrant and captivating. The voltage remains high to the end. I don’t mean to suggest in comparing Weinberg and Shostakovich that Weinberg’s music should strike anyone as dry and humorlessly academic—it’s just that Weinberg seems not to wish to take the time to laugh, so urgently does he need to communicate. And had he been in search of someone to channel his spirit, he could hardly have chosen more wisely than Sławek and Różański.
Linus Roth and José Gallardo played all Weinberg’s violin sonatas (and the Sonatina) on Challenge 608917256727, Fanfare 37:3; and Yuri Kalnits and Michael Csányi played the First and Fourth Sonatas (as well as the Sonatina) on Toccata 0007, Fanfare 35:1. In the Fourth Sonata, Sławek and Różański will likely seem more ominous in the slow movements than the others, but Kalnits and Csányi should lift everyone out of their seats in the Allegro ma non troppo (on the other hand, he takes the opening movement significantly faster, hardly leaving time for fermentation). Maria Sławek is also loamier than Roth in the Fifth Sonata. Those who prefer a cheeky reading of the Sonatina, particularly of its last movement, may prefer Kalnits (Roth is the slinkiest and most suggestive). In any case, Accord’s recorded sound, with its fidelity and broad dynamic range, enhances Sławek’s and Różański performances. On the whole, it’s a most compelling program and deserves to be urgently recommended.