Has Mieczysław Weinberg's time come? With 21 completed symphonies, 17 string quartets, 70 film scores and seven operas (including The Passenger), he was as prolific a composer as his close friend Shostakovich, but Weinberg is often accorded footnote status in the annals of Soviet music. This weekend, two of his greatest advocates, Gidon Kremer and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, argued a convincing case in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's Weinberg Weekend, the centrepiece of which was a powerful UK premiere of his Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish”.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Benjamin Ealovega
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Benjamin Ealovega

Born to a Jewish family of musicians and actors in Warsaw in 1919, Weinberg joined the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of 12. His family suffered from anti-semitic persecution and when the Second World War broke out in 1939, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union. Minsk border guards, filling out his paperwork, named him “Moisey” and it was as Moisey Samilovich Vaynberg that he was referred to in Russian until he was allowed to readopt his Polish name in 1982. He eventually settled in Moscow, composing and performing as a pianist, and sharing a close friendship with Shostakovich, whom he regarded as a great mentor: “I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood”.

Weinberg's family was not so fortunate. Remaining in Warsaw, his parents and younger sister Esther perished in the Trawniki concentration camp. His 21st Symphony, completed in 1991, is dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto's Holocaust victims. In a single movement, but in six discernible sections, the elegiac symphony lasts nearly an hour. It features several solo violin entries, played here by no less than Gidon Kremer, who has performed and recorded Weinberg with his Kremerata Baltica, whose string players joined their CBSO counterparts to fill out the Symphony Hall stage to bursting. Kremer's spidery utterances took on a ghostly quality, often played in combination with harp and piano.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the CBSO © Benjamin Ealovega
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the CBSO
© Benjamin Ealovega

Even more haunting were fragments from Chopin's G minor Ballade, the same work later used in Roman Polanski's film The Pianist about Władysław Szpilman, whose 1946 novel Death of a City recounts how he survived the German occupation of Warsaw and the Holocaust. Moments like this lend Weinberg's symphony a strange patchwork quality. There are self-quotations, such as the gruff double bass solo, a wheezy harmonium and passages that sound like Shostakovich – squealing woodwind protests and a frantic circus chase – as well as raucous klezmer episodes for a trio of violin, clarinet and bass. Yet despite its sprawling nature, Gražinytė-Tyla exerted a firm grip over the symphony's architecture, carving huge climaxes – a church bell resounding from on high – of tremendous power. In the finale, there is a striking episode featuring a wordless soprano. Here, the workload was shared between two singers – Maria Makeeva joined by treble Freddie Jemison, whose haunting melismas were breathtakingly poignant. With granitic brass and a satin sheen to the massed strings of the CBSO and Kremerata Baltica, I cannot imagine a more persuasive account of this fascinating score.

Shostakovich's Symphony no. 15 in A mjaor made for a natural concert partner, another final symphony packed with quotations. But Shostakovich's meaning is never clear; it's an enigmatic riddle of a work and I'm not convinced Gražinytė-Tyla relished solving the puzzle. She led a precise, poker-faced account, seemingly reluctant to allow the CBSO to misbehave. The William Tell galop's appearance felt sheepish and the Liebestod quote from Tristan und Isolde didn't quite trip away into Shostakovich's waltz as naughtily as it could. There was plenty of string grit, however, and stern brass and judgmental bassoons made their mark and the percussion section's clockwork whirring lent the final bars its sinister toyshop quality.

****1