- Gidon Kremer: “Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin” (ECM)
- Stéphane Degout, Simon Lepper: “Epic: Lieder & Balladen” (Harmonia Mundi)
- Anna Prohaska, La Folia Barockorchester, Robin Peter Müller: “Celebration of Life in Death” (Alpha)
There are several moments in the Torah when a figure, called on by God, answers that call with a single word: Hineni. It’s the word Abraham utters when God orders him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the one he repeats when he’s stopped at the last minute. Moses says it, too, when he encounters the burning bush. In Hebrew, it means “here I am,” but it’s more than a bit of locational language. The “here I am” of hineni is a location of the self in temporal and physical space, as well as emotional, spiritual, and moral space. The word takes on the form of a leitmotif; if a character utters the phrase, it’s a sure sign they’re about to experience a profound change, usually via crisis. Leonard Cohen, who repeats the phrase on the opening track to his final album, “You Want It Darker,” might have described it as “a ritual response to an impossible event.”
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, who sings on the same track, saw it as Cohen’s way of coming to terms with his own life as he became aware of his death, telling the Montreal Gazette in 2016, “I think ‘hineni’ is more a reference to Leonard as someone trying to come to an understanding with God, someone reckoning with final tallies in the Book of Life: Here I am—I am ready.” It’s a benediction for restoration, for grace, for understanding the roundabouts of the universe. But, as Cohen suggests, it’s not a white light of absolution; it’s something a bit darker.
There’s a similar sense of declaration and declamation in the solo violin sonatas of Mieczysław Weinberg, who in another life could have been Cohen’s older brother. Born in Warsaw in 1919, Weinberg’s musical talent led Polish-American pianist Josef Hofmann, then-head of the Curtis Institute of Music, to arrange for Weinberg to study in the United States. World War II curtailed those plans, and so Weinberg emigrated to the USSR, where he studied in Minsk, settled in Tashkent, and had his own burning bush moment when he met Shostakovich, who brought him to Moscow. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg struggled with state-mandated musical criteria, suffering for it financially and politically—he spent three months in prison in 1953 in part for the attacks against his music in the press (Shostakovich saved his life).
In the 1960s, aesthetic regulations changed. Weinberg wrote the first two of his three violin sonatas in that decade. It would be another 12 years before he completed his third, dedicated to the memory of his father, who died in Trawinki in 1943. Gidon Kremer opens his latest album with this single-movement sonata, which merges the craftsmanship of a Bach chaconne with the versatility of Bartók’s violin sonata to create a portrait that lives in the rough edges and exposed seams. Quickly aching bow strokes lilt into something closer to the Yiddish theater of Weinberg’s youth. How starkly it all ends, like a person interrupted mid-breath.
Kremer works backwards in Weinberg’s timeline, moving from the third into the second and ending on the first of the violin sonatas. In doing so, Kremer reveals how much of the first two sonatas were bridges to his third and final work: early drafts that stand on their own merits. In these, you hear Weinberg’s periods of political and personal turmoil, and an unwavering sense of his own self that carries through despite it all.
Not that he would have considered himself either victim or hero—“I cannot say about myself what others say about themselves–that they were persecuted,” Weinberg said. His music wasn’t a form of self-pity or aggrandization; it was a medium through which he could make sense of the world, both in the sense of a vast philosophical concept and in the sense of his own, comparatively small, autobiography. Each phrase and pluck is his own reckoning with the Book of Life. A longtime champion of Weinberg’s music, with a sense of how history and politics inform art in any era, Kremer’s own unshakable, at times iconoclastic, foundation make him an ideal interpreter for these three works. Even listening to them with the focus and care of a Talmudic scholar wouldn’t reveal all of the meanings buried in every corner of each score.
Darkness as a conduit for catharsis isn’t unique to Weinberg, though moving from his works to the deep Romantic territory of Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, and Wolf feels a bit like going from Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle to the German pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center. Though catharsis isn’t exactly the feeling that French baritone Stéphane Degout was going for with his 2020 album of ballads and lieders, the idea of darkness as a raw material is still at home in “Epic.” And, in a century that, despite the Congress of Vienna, was still soaked in blood thanks to vainglorious tilts toward power, perhaps the best way of making sense of Napoleon, Bismarck, the Italian Risorgimento, and clashing empires was through a song about a dwarf murdering his queen at sea. As the three characters described in Liszt’s intemperate “Die drei Zigeuner” suggest to the narrator, the best thing to do when life turns dark is to sleep, smoke, or fiddle away.
When Degout sings this familiar standard, with its boozy dance interlude played by pianist Simon Lepper like the last call in a Marlene Dietrich movie, the disdain in his voice isn’t an implication of the three (ostensibly Romani) travelers. It’s more like an implication of the narrator and his own projections—Liszt and poet Nikolaus Lenau predicting the lack of self-awareness in an Instagram influencer’s travel photo captions. The one song I keep coming back to on this album, however, is Schumann’s “Die beiden Grenadiere,” a miniature opera in under four minutes. Set in the retreat from Russia, two French soldiers are crossing Germany when they learn of Napoleon’s imprisonment on the island of Saint Helena and the failure of the campaign in which they fought and were taken as prisoners of war. Heinrich Heine’s text casts a then-contemporary story in an archaic form more on par with Arthurian legend, but we are reminded that these are the fates of two real people, not poetic figures. “If only we could die together,” says one soldier as they cling to each other in defeat. “But I’ve a wife and child at home who would perish without me.” The other soldier says to hell with the wife and child—their emperor has been captured.
The second half of the song becomes his request that, if he should die on the journey home, his comrade in arms carry his body back to France. The sum totality of war and its devastation are of no use to the soldier; the price he paid is nothing compared to his emperor falling. Schumann layers the “Marseillaise” into the score here, but it sounds wooden and warped against the reality of the situation. Every time Degout sings of the soldier’s beloved “kaiser,” that word comes out with a bit more bite and bile.
“Epic” ends on a comparatively tamer set of Liszt’s “Petrarch Sonatas,” but I highly recommend the following pairing: After Degout’s Schumann, switch over to the opening of Anna Prohaska’s latest album. Prohaska’s light, yet substantive, soprano singing a plainchant “Dies Irae” against the lightest of underscoring from La Folia Barockorchester is the sort of sonic safety net you want after Schumann’s tightrope walk.
The second of Prohaska’s two responses to the pandemic for Alpha, “Celebration of Life in Death” could have been an abject failure in the hands of another singer. “Responses” to world events, particularly those that last for an entire album (or two) tend to be less about using music as a wayfinding tool towards meaning, and more about inserting a musician at the center of world events so that they can continue to feel relevant: a “what about meeeee” stretched across arias and cantatas and lieder. But Prohaska has never been one for whining. She also had a longstanding fascination with the Black Death of the mid-14th century and its extensive documentation—including through music.
This is the starting point for a fiercely intelligent and compulsively listenable album that begins with music by Guillaume de Machaut and Lorenzo da Firenze and moves through the themes of death and crisis—and how the two have fuelled one another throughout history. Prohaska’s Machaut and early, anonymous works crackle with the adrenaline of uncertainty. Conversely, Purcell’s “Since the Pox or the Plague of Inconstancy Reigns,” a warning against the dangers of carnal love in the face of venereal disease, is played with the bawdiness of a group of horny sixteen-year-olds listening to an abstinence-only sex talk as delivered by Church Lady.
Prohaska and La Folia (led with assurance by Robin Peter Müller) end with an arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s an overplayed and over-covered work whose layers of Talmudic meaning have been stripped away thanks to its inclusion on one too many Christmas albums and Olympics figure skating programs. Yet, closing out Prohaska’s record—one teeming with sex, death, and war—is a rare moment in which the singer clearly understands the assignment. Prohaska delivers, dropping her opera-with-a-capital-o voice for an earthy croon and a stripped-down accompaniment. Cohen’s song, which makes sense of his personal and interpersonal failures through Biblical legend, gets the last word. ¶
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