In the best sense, composers tend to be two-faced individuals. Their private face is directed towards the score, imbuing it with whatever inner thoughts and feelings they need to articulate; their public face, directed towards audiences and authorities, is concerned (perhaps unwillingly) with presentation and protocol. This dichotomy strongly made its presence felt in the music by Mieczysław Weinberg and Gustav Mahler performed at Wednesday’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert, but in strikingly different ways. By the end, it was impossible not to feel desperately sad for Weinberg.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla rehearses the CBSO in Symphony Hall
© Hannah Blake-Fathers

In Weinberg’s case there’s an obvious reason: the Polish composer had been forced to flee his homeland to avoid the ravages of Nazism, resettling in the USSR where he subsequently fell foul of Stalinism, losing his family to the former and his creative freedom to the latter. Weinberg’s earlier music therefore fits well – by absolute necessity – within the stylistic boundaries imposed by the Soviet regime. As such, it’s difficult not to hear the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes as pomp and frivolity through the most gritted of teeth, its superficially exhilarating, high-kicking romp – replete with oom-pahs and off-beat piccolo whoops and percussion splashes – as an example of ruthlessly four-square grotesquery. The fact that the work begins so sombre as to be borderline funereal says something of the composer’s private face that we barely get to glimpse. The CBSO went to town in both modes of expression, suffering occasionally from Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s tendency to pull around the tempo, leading to some uncomfortably asynchronous sequences.

This contrast between private and public was less overt in Weinberg’s much more expansive Symphony no. 3 in B minor. In the first movement it emerged following an opening gambit sufficiently twee that it could almost have been an example of British light music. But soon, the music showed its teeth and snarled (figuratively and literally), arriving at a plateau that seemed impossibly fiery considering where we had begun. The CBSO articulated its subsequent strange twist into ghostly territory beautifully – one of several genuinely spine-tingling moments – as they did a similar sequence in the Scherzo, Weinberg again rendering something ostensibly familiar as completely alien. It was becoming clear that this was no black-and-white symphony, not a simple binary opposition corresponding to desired or required modes of expression. Though the music inevitably hit upon large-scale moments of force, Weinberg never lingered on them, emphasising delicacy and care rather than grand statement. So while the closing Finale returned to something of the same contorted dances as in the Rhapsody – the CBSO making them sound like the product of an outlandish barrel organ – this was swiftly reduced to nothing, a skeletal vestige of fife and drum. Though revealed mainly by implication, it was by now obvious the extent to which Weinberg’s private voice manifested in its public alter-ego, acting to defuse and channel its superficial pleasures in a more mature, sophisticated and personally-charged direction.

Nonetheless, it was impossible not to feel the weight of Weinberg’s struggle all the more in the wake of the Rückert-Lieder. Mahler’s complete creative freedom – captured in the words’ overt demurring at public scrutiny and disinterest in the outside world in favour of authentic inner rumination – in hindsight sounded rather like salt in the wound. However, the fabulous way Karen Cargill embodied Rückert’s words – Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO rightly receding to a modest but sublime accompanying role – meant that a more subtle public and private struggle could be heard in the songs’ progression from glint-in-the-eye simplicity to genuine melancholy and desolation. Albeit a far cry from the composer’s huge symphonic dramas, its intensity was all too apparent, though so was the discrepancy between the two composers: where Weinberg’s struggle was driven by fear, Mahler’s was fuelled by love. 

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