A chronicle of gratitude and ambivalence

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: 12th symphony/Dawn (Chandos)

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In Dmitri Shostakovich’s last years, Mieczyslaw Weinberg stopped writing symphonies. After his 11th in 1970, nothing more stirred in him. Then in December 1975, four months after his friend’s passing, he began a memorial symphony.

The 12th did not go well. The influential conductor Kirill Kondrashin rejected the overlong opening movement, and the hourlong score did not get a hearing until Maxim Shostakovich, son of the dedicatee, conducted a Soviet radio broadcast in October 1979. Soon after, Maxim fled to the West, and the symphony was left to gather dust.

A marimba at the finale is a typical Shostakovich gesture of mockery

What we hear is a chronicle of gratitude and ambivalence, a tapestry of Shostakovich quotations riddled with ironies, contradictions and regrets. The early moments are tentative, as if Weinberg is wondering whether he can achieve another work on this scale. As confidence grows, so does independence. There is no lack of Shostakovich bombast, but there are three quiet contemplations of arresting themes, each more sombre and lovelier than the last. A marimba at the start of the finale is a typical Shostakovich gesture of mockery — life is futile, but who cares? The ending is left, quite deliberately, unresolved.

Weinberg and Shostakovich were always the first to see each other’s new work. Weinberg will have written this symphony with Shostakovich’s rasping voice in his ear, supportive, sceptical and self-censoring. On the third hearing, I keep finding more traces of a mutually sustaining relationship. This is a truly valuable exhumation of a little-known work of great historical moment, dazzlingly performed by the BBC Philharmonic and its chief conductor John Storgards.

The less I write of the 1957 symphonic poem “Dawn”, the better. Composed for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, “Dawn” has fragments of revolutionary anthems chasing each other around the orchestra to no obvious purpose, except to satisfy the infantile minds of Party ideologues. Such were the things Soviet composers had to do to survive.

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