International Piano

Here are Volumes 9 and 10 of Divine Art’s ever-enterprising Russian Piano Music Series. My colleague Colin Clarke reviewed a rival Grand Piano Weinberg sonata CD for IP in July/August, and supplied some background. There is now a Grand Piano sequel (GP607), coupling the Fourth Sonata with the Sonatina, Op 49 and the 10-movement Partita, Op 54, placing the two labels in more direct competition.

First impressions of Mieczyslaw Weinberg? Shostakovich without the jokes, you may think. The sound-world is bleak and often frenzied, unsurprisingly recalling Shostakovich, given the older man’s friendly (and on occasion life-saving) influence. The humourlessness is understandable, given Weinberg’s hounding by – successively – the Nazis and Stalin, and is summed up with artless understatement in the note writer’s comment, ‘A Jewish artist in the Soviet Union did not exactly enjoy an easy life’. Weinberg composed indefatigably, however: just six piano sonatas (1940-60) but, among his total of 154 opus numbers, there are also 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets and a Trumpet Concerto that piano accompanists may already know.

The best entry for newcomers – be they listeners or players – is the Fourth Sonata (premiered by Gilels, no less) the most well-known and arguably finest piece in these two volumes. Murray McLachlan’s performance, here as elsewhere, is brawny, relentlessly energetic and fully committed, encompassing the slow movement’s gigantic stretches with enviable ease. Nervous listeners should warm up on the 17 Easy Pieces, all very short, enticingly harmonised and many of them ripe for early-grade exam syllabuses. Both discs were originally recorded in Sweden in 1996 and issued on Olympia: the recorded piano sound stops just this side of twangy.

—Michael Round