“What is most important to me is the meaning behind the music, the story behind it.”
– Manfred Honeck
The famous conductor Manfred Honeck, Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, returns to the IPO to conduct the Brahms German Requiem with soloists soprano Sunhae Im and baritone Shenyang, as well as the Weinberg Violin Concerto with IPO concertmaster, violinist David Radzynski.
One can always rely on composers to provide the “punch line” for the works and personalities of other composers. Antonín Dvořák, generally a witty man, said after hearing and admiring Brahms’ German Requiem: “What an amazing man, what spirituality, and this is a work written by a man who does not believe in anything! A complete atheist.” Dvořák was not entirely wrong, as Brahms was not a religious man, but it turns out that musical sensitivity and talent can also contribute to the writing of a profound, compelling and extremely personal religious work.
It took Brahms fifteen years to write the German Requiem, an extremely long time even for Brahms, who was not exactly quick with his pen. The story of the German Requiem’s composition reveals something about composing processes and about the way that material becomes a composition in the creator’s hand.
The first sketches for the Requiem were written in 1854, but Brahms intended this material to be part of a piano sonata, that later became a sonata for two pianos and was eventually abandoned. Ultimately, much of the material was used in his First Symphony. But a small part of the original piano piece, a sort of melancholic funeral march, remained “unused.” Initially, Brahms thought of using it in a vocal work in memory of Robert Schumann (the composer who “discovered” him and greatly accelerated his professional career). But it was his mother’s death in 1865 that made Brahms reconnect twelve years later to that unused part of the piano piece, and compelled him transform it into what became the second movement of the Requiem. Quite quickly, six of the seven movements of the work were completed, and in December 1867 three movements were performed in Vienna. Both Clara Schumann and Brahms’ father were present at the premiere. The audience was excited, including Clara, but Brahms’ father, historians say, sat with a serious face during the performance and finally muttered, “The piece is ok.” The death of Brahms’ mother was the main motive behind the writing of the work, and after a performance in Bremen in May 1868 he decided to add a movement for soprano and choir with text taken from the book of Isaiah: “As a man whose mother comforted me, I will comfort you.” With these words, Brahms concluded his writing of the Requiem. The work’s full premiere took place in February 1869, fifteen years after the first notes were written.
It would be unfair to refer to the Polish-born Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg as “Shostakovich’s friend,” as a man who helped Shostakovich discover the treasures of Jewish folklore and who managed to escape Hitler twice, once when he fled from his hometown of Warsaw to Minsk, and again, with the help of Russian civilians who took care of his safety as he was brought to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. It would also be unfair to refer to the biographical aspects of his life, such as his time in Moscow, his persecution by the Stalinists, the change in his status and his transformation into a successful Russian composer. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that we wrote twenty-six symphonies, many concertos, and an opera “The Passenger” dealing with Holocaust remembrance.
These days, when it seems that there is a great interest in good works that are not trite and over-performed and recorded, Weinberg’s beautiful concerto is a joyous experience. This is an effective work that is demanding from the soloist and pleasant for the listener. Although composed in 1959 it seems to be anchored aesthetically somewhere in the style of early Shostakovich. The concerto is deep but not depressing, smart but not cynical. The work makes good use of the orchestra but does not “invent new sounds” – simply a well-written work with a funny third movement (Adagio). Surely, the hearing of this piece will spark interest in other works by Weinberg. Why did his name not become known in the West? Is it the fact that he did not struggle with the Soviet establishment and was comfortable in the Soviet Union, that caused a lack of interest in his music? Did the West perceive his scores as “outdated”? Is it the “curse of prolific composers” whose many works aroused suspicion in the surrounding musical community? And perhaps we are at the beginning of an era in which Weinberg’s many works will be exposed to audiences in the West and his name will be added to the list of notable Russian composers from the twentieth century?
About the artists: IPO concertmaster, violinist David Radzynski. Weinberg’s early life was full of wandering. David Radzynski’s biography seems different. Born in the United States, he completed his studies and began advancing career. But a review of Noam Ben-Ze’ev’s excellent article published in Haaretz on April 3rd, 2015, after Radzynski’s won the Concertmaster position, also raised the following, written by Ran Yaari (3.4.2015)
The apple does not fall far from the tree
Fortunately for me, I had the privilege of seeing his father Jan in a hole across the Suez Canal in Egypt. The year was 1973, during the days of the Yom Kippur War. Jan had served with me in the 54th Regiment in the 11th Brigade, and we were partners together in the same trench we had dug ourselves. We served in Africa for six months on reserve duty, and both of us felt that we did not belong in this war, which we had mistakenly encountered. Jan told me a lot about his playing the cello – a little strange to speak about in the desert on hot days and freezing nights, where we unwillingly found ourselves. After the war we parted ways and I wish I could reconnect with Jan whenever possible.
From Poland to Tel Aviv, to Connecticut to Ohio and back to Tel Aviv, the Radzynski family, to a large extent, tells the story of the Jewish people of today.
Here is the link to Ben Zeev’s article: