Friday, February 01, 2019

Citizen of Nowhere, here

The revival of interest in Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music began with his opera The Passenger a few years back. But now, with the centenary of his birth falling in 2019, the floodgates have opened at last. Next season the Wigmore Hall is hosting a complete cycle of his string quartets. Mirga Grazynite-Tyla has brought his Symphony No.21 (the man was very prolific) to the CBSO this season and, along with Gidon Kremer, has been focusing much attention on him at Symphony Hall. And on Sunday the bass-baritone Mark Glanville and pianist Mark Verter are giving a concert devoted entirely to his songs at the Purcell Room here in London. It is entitled - poignantly and appositely - Citizen of Nowhere.

I went to interview Mark about it and you can read the full story in The JC. Below are some pertinent extracts. Meanwhile: please come and hear them!

The name of Mieczyslaw Weinberg was virtually unknown in western Europe until his opera The Passenger, set partly in Auschwitz, was staged for the first time at the 2010 Bregenz Festival. Since then, championed by prominent musicians across the world, Weinberg has finally made it onto the musical map. 

This prolific and powerful Polish Jewish composer left a vast legacy of music, including 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 40 film and animation scores, seven operas, copious miscellaneous instrumental and orchestral pieces, and more than 200 solo songs...

Glanville’s concert, pointedly entitled “Citizen of Nowhere”, is a journey through Weinberg’s long, turbulent life. “Obviously the title is a direct reference to Theresa May’s appalling declaration,” says Glanville (the Prime Minister said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2016). “I felt strongly about that,” Glanville says. “It seems to evoke the ‘Rootless Cosmopolitan’ term of Stalin, which was obviously shorthand for ‘Jews’. But if you look at Weinberg’s life, he really was a Citizen of Nowhere...”

Rostropovich plays the amazing Weinberg Cello Concerto (part 1) - please, please listen to this

Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw to Jewish parents from Kishinev (now in Moldova), who had fled after their own parents were slaughtered in the 1905 pogrom in that town. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union: first to Minsk, then to faraway Tashkent. Both his parents and his sister were killed in the Trawniki camp. 

In Tashkent, to which many of Russia’s intellectuals and artistic community had been evacuated, Weinberg married the daughter of the celebrated actor Solomon Mikhoels, and met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a close friend and urged him to move to Moscow. Weinberg did so in 1943. But in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in February 1953, Mikhoels was murdered and Weinberg, as a close family member, found himself thrown into jail. “He was probably on death row,” says Glanville. “It was only because Stalin died that he was released.” 

Weinberg went on to live a long and fruitful life - he died as recently as 1996. Yet his fate was to remain a perpetual outsider. “The Poles never accepted him as Polish,” says Glanville. “In Russia, he was never Russian. And there is even a weird, bizarre, horrible reverse snobbery to do with the Holocaust and Jewish composers: if you survived, you’re not taken as seriously as the composers who died. It has possibly stood against him, a composer of such genius, that he survived.” 

Glanville has assembled a personal selection of what he sees as some of Weinberg’s very best songs. “To me, they knock Shostakovich’s songs out of the park,” he asserts. Among them are settings of the Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, the Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi in Russian translation, and some harrowing pieces about the Holocaust. 

They are enormously challenging to perform, Glanville adds. “It’s very demanding music: I have to have a range of about two and a half octaves, because he writes huge stretches for the voice. The piano parts too are very difficult: he’s pushing you, as a musician, to the absolute limits of your ability. He will never compromise. He will write whatever needs to be written to say what he wants to say. He won’t spare you: you do what he needs to do. He has a very authentic voice and I think it’s insulting to see him, as some do, as a B-list Shostakovich. He’s not trying to be anyone but himself.” .....

Mark Glanville and Mark Verter perform Citizen of Nowhere: A Sung Life at the Purcell Room on 3 February. Booking: 020 3879 9555

Here is a conversation with Irina Shostakovich about Weinberg, from the International Weinberg Society, filmed in 2015: