One of the most interesting composers to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union was Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg; resident in Moscow since 1943, Weinberg had been the recipient of many honors within the Soviet Union but had never really been heard in the west. A close friend, though not a student, of Dmitry Shostakovich, Weinberg at times sounds more like "Shostakovich" than Shostakovich himself does, and his music is both mind-bendingly impressive, yet a bit depressing, to devotees of Shostakovich. If Shostakovich's Polish acolyte could reproduce his sound so easily and so well, what does that say about the master?
When it comes to the cello music of Weinberg, Shostakovich's adherents can breathe a sigh of relief; it is nothing like the one work Shostakovich produced in the medium for cello and piano, the Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, of 1934. The three works performed on BIS' Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Cello Sonatas with strong dedication by cellist Alexander Chaushian and pianist Yevgeny Sudbin are not only different from Shostakovich; they are quite different from one another. The Cello Sonata No. 1, Op. 21 (1945), is a grim, dark work that seems to reflect the weariness of protracted war, whereas the Cello Sonata No. 20, Op. 63, premiered in 1960 by Mstislav Rostropovich, is more lyrical and perhaps a tad more ambivalent. One would think the Sonata No. 1 for cello solo, Op. 72 (1960), was naturally intended for Rostropovich as well, but nothing is known of its premiere and he might not have ever played it. It consists of a long, arcing Adagio contrasted with a whimsical Allegretto and an imposingly rhythmic Allegro, and while it is very good music, it is not the sort of piece that makes you want to reach out to every cellist one might know and say, "You've got to hear this." Unlike Weinberg's symphonies and chamber orchestral works, these cello pieces don't jump out at you and command your attention; they are thematically and formally secure, well written for the instrument but are rather depressing, and sometimes bland. Congratulations, though, are due to cellist Alexander Chaushian for taking them on; he does the best job he can to make these pieces compelling and memorable, if compelling and memorable they can be. For Weinberg fanciers, these works will be welcome no matter what, but others in the "merely interested" camp may want to try listening to one of Weinberg's symphonies or his Piano Quartet, Op. 18, instead.