Mieczysław Weinberg’s centenary hasn’t attracted the most lavish of celebrations at the BBC Proms, but what little that has been programmed has turned out to be truly excellent. A couple of weeks after Sol Gabetta’s soulful performance of the Cello Concerto, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave us a searching, riveting account of the Third Symphony. Gražinytė-Tyla already has impeccable Weinberg credentials. The highlight of the CBSO’s Weinberg Weekend last November was their powerful UK premiere of his Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish”, since released on disc. Weinberg could have no finer champion.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

“I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood,” Weinberg wrote of his great friend and mentor Dmitri Shostakovich. Both composers suffered under Stalin’s regime, falling foul of Andrey Zhdanov’s 1948 “anti-formalism” campaign, which decreed that all Soviet composers should be writing music “for the People”, preferably drawing on folk music and positive in outlook. Not an ideal time, then, for personal or political statements in cerebral symphonies cloaked in great meaning. Weinberg’s Symphony no. 3 in B minor was a possible casualty. Composed in 1949, it did indeed reference a Belorussian folksong (in the opening movement) and a Polish mazurka tune (in the second), but the symphony’s premiere was mysteriously postponed, Weinberg citing “errors” he found in rehearsal. Were these “errors” discovered by the regime or were they an act of self-criticism? We may never know, but the Third was tucked away for another decade, revised and recomposed for its first performance in March 1960.

Inevitably, Weinberg’s music falls under the shadow of Shostakovich almost as much as it falls under the shadow of Stalin. Listening to this excellent account of the Third from the CBSO, there isn’t the same degree of acute angst or poisonous sarcasm that could pour from Dmitri Dmitriyevich’s pen, but it’s still a powerful work. Gražinytė-Tyla maintained an undercurrent of tension in the strings during the first movement, scurrying, worrying beneath deceptively carefree woodwind solos. Snare drum and trumpet tattoos hint at military menace, but it was the moment of oboe balm which registered most movingly. Playful Brittenesque strings were to the fore in the Allegro giocoso second movement before a rapt, powerful account of the central Adagio, Gražinytė-Tyla’s scything baton sculpting a climax of huge intensity. The finale bristled nervously with Shostakovich-like hypochondria. Let’s hear this symphony regularly, please. Weinberg’s Seventh String Quartet will be played by the Silesian String Quartet at the penultimate Chamber Prom. Don’t miss out.

While Weinberg’s Third was receiving its Proms premiere, Dorothy Howell’s Lamia was clocking up its tenth outing. This symphonic poem, based on John Keats’ poem, was written when its composer was just 20. Sir Henry Wood conducted it at the Proms in 1919, where it was such a hit, he programmed it again just three days later. A critic at the time even checked with her RAM teacher whether Howell had actually composed the piece herself. She was soon dubbed “the English Strauss” and Wood conducted Lamia frequently.

Gražinytė-Tyla painted Howell’s colours vividly with balletic grace, from the pastoral flute and Grecian heat haze of the opening to the energetic climax. Her precise baton also teased out every detail in Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder, drawn from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! and full of percussion ticks and flickers.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s conducting opens your ears. She is an artist with something really profound to say. The same cannot be said yet for Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto was wan and lifeless. His small tone was frequently lost in the hall, however sensitively the conductor turned down the dial on the orchestra’s dynamics. Kanneh-Mason’s introspective approach to the Adagio paid off well though. Given time to mature, his interpretation will surely grow.

***11