Jewish identity in music – pianist Elisaveta Blumina explores Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s oeuvre, and her own heritage in the process

Multilingual, with a vivid personality and eyes that bare her soul, the prodigal pianist born in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), has built her career as performance and recording artist in Germany and beyond, and serves as artistic director of the Hamburg Chamber Music Festival since 2012. (Photo Credit: Frances Marshall)

When it comes to new discovery, Blumina’s creativity as curator and performer unite, combining skilled professionalism with passionate investigation and expression. In a highly idiosyncratic manner, she follows her instincts and curiosity. Certainly such passion is grounded in her deep motivation to express diverse musical facets, which, like little puzzle pieces put together, are larger than the sum of their meaningful morsels. Time after time, she closes the gaps, shedding as much light on her finds, as on own identity as woman artist of Jewish heritage.

Growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors, yet in an environment rooted in high brow culture – the Russian school of piano, which dominated the St. Petersburg conservatory and idolized Germany’s music tradition – certainly left a strong emotional imprint on her personal and musical identity.

At age 19, Blumina moved to Hamburg all by herself to advance her piano studies, and there was no looking back. Several years in Florida followed, where her older son was born, then Rome, Geneva, and Madrid, where her younger son was born, and finally Dublin, where she spearheads a music school. Among her teachers she counts Andrἁs Schiff, Evgeny Koroliov, Radu Lupo and Bruno Canino.

(Photo Credit: Mathias Mayer, Laetzhalle from Hamburg Chamber Music Festival, Elisaveta Blumina, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Sennu Laine, Andrei Gridchuk)

She became a frequent guest performer at international festivals, like the Schleswig-Holstein, Colmar, Verbier and Lockenhaus festivals and gained a distinct reputation as pianist, chamber musician and lecturer. While she settled in Germany and did not revisit Russia during the twenty years after she had left her hometown, her connection to Russian music culture grew stronger as she grew more conscious of her personal background. That awareness translated into her drive to bring back some of the pearls of that almost lost traditional Russian Jewish inheritance.

While Blumina’s multifaceted pianistic interests include repertoire that ranges from Russian masters and moderns, to Brahms, to French music – her 2014 CD with the Ensemble Blumina Trio (with Kalev Kuljus, Oboe, and Mathias Baier, Bassoon) features works of French chamber music from the 20th and 21st centuries and garnered the Echo Price of that category – it became her passion to help composers who had remained unjustifiably unknown to the public, be heard anew.

It is no coincidence that her special focus on Jewish composers received an engaged reception throughout Germany, especially with the second postwar generation.

Founded by Blumina in 2014, the Giluim Festival in Schoenebeck – Hebrew for ‘discoveries’ – became an additional platform to expose such lost art with a Jewish component, pairing unheard performers like George Dreyfus with the work of renowned Jewish composers, like Gershwin and Mendelssohn.

In 2014, Blumina also devoted much attention to the composer Grigori Samuilowitch Fried, a contemporary of Weinberg. Blumina also became fascinated with thecompendium of female Jewish  composers, many of them cultural icons of their time, who found a special place in Blumina’s heart. She has devoted diverse programs ofher Hamburg Chamber Music Festival to these Jewish musical heroines, planning to expand the exposure of their works and continue to explore their challenging cultural roles as women, musicians and Jews in society. (photo: courtesy of artist)

Broadening her “exponents’” presence with her curatorial ambitions has become as important as Blumina’s performances as a pianist and chamber musician, which in the meantime, also brings her annually to Safed, as participant at the Israeli Klezmer Festival. (photo: courtesy of artist)

Perhaps none of Blumina’s efforts, though, has taken on such panoramic volume and broad follower-ship than her rediscovery of Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. With her continued championship of Weinberg’s brilliant work, Blumina has managed to play a central role in a recent perpetual Weinberg Renaissance.

And her enthusiasm is contagious.

Blumina was in New York when Weinberg’s work was first brought to her attention in 1995 by Russian Cellist Yosif Feigelson, who had already recorded some of Weinberg’s works.

It was then she realized she had been familiar with Weinberg’s music all along, as had most everybody growing up in Russia at the time, through his compositions for films including the beloved cartoon Winnie the Pooh.

Upon further research, she was surprised to find that this favorite melody from her childhood was just one of sixty-five film scores Weinberg produced next to his prolific output of twenty-six symphonies, seven concertos, seventeen string quartets, twenty-eight sonatas for various instruments, seven operas and ballets and various other works, including a requiem and countless songs.

Sixteen albums of Weinberg’s music were released on the Olympia label between 1994 and 2000, many of them releases of Soviet-era recordings of live premiere performances; this recorded repertoire gives a representation of the composer’s oeuvre, alas with differing recording qualities (Reilly 2000). An important force behind these recordings was Tommy Persson, and subsequently releases on the Chandos label followed.

When Blumina started to explore the substantial musical material, she fell in love with his Children Note Books, I-III, Op. 16, 19, and 23, consisting of 23 pieces for piano, which had been written in 1944 for his daughter Viktoria.

Just recently, Blumina had a chance to meet with Viktoria in person in Israel, where she had emigrated with her mother Nataliya (Weinberg’s first wife) in 1972. The meeting was momentous, remembers Blumina: “An important personal connection for me was the fact that perhaps the most beautiful of Weinberg’s works, which also incidentally started my big recording project with CPO, was dedicated to her.” Blumina had the opportunity to interview Viktoria in her native Russian language, hearing about her close relationship with her father, and her memories of listening to her father’s compositions before they were played through for his close friends: Dmitri Shostakovitch, Boris Tschaikowski and Volik Bunin. Viktoria used to add the page numbers by hand into her father’s manuscripts, and she accompanied him to rehearsals of his new works. Music remained in the forefront of Weinberg’s daily routine, just like it had dominated his youth in Warsaw, where his father practiced violin and composed for a Jewish theater company, he also conducted. (photo: Deutschland Radio Kultur, Berlin)

Interestingly, it was Weinberg’s Jewish identity, which initially had led to his persecution, subjugationand neglect, that brought him the renewed interest he so well deserved.

“His music is overflowing with Jewish spirit and sentiment, and his melodies carry in them the essence of Jewish pain and melancholy,” says Blumina, who, several years ago, began a series of recordings for the CPO label which upon completion will span Weinberg’s complete collection of Solo Piano and some of his Chamber Music works. “Once I started to occupy myself with his work, I realized I just had to go deeper and deeper. His work is full of individual idioms, diverse and multifaceted, it just did not let me go.”

Others feel equally engaged after making the acquaintance with Weinberg’s talent. Star violinist Gidon Kremer once thanked Blumina personally for having infected him with her “feverish passion” for the composer, and since has performed Weinberg on a regular basis. In 2015, he and rising star pianist Daniil Trifonov put Weinberg on Carnegie Hall’s stage. This season under the title: “Masks and Faces,” Kremer and his exalted Baltic chamber group, Kremeratica, will present works by Weinberg, Tschaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Arvo Paert at New York’s 92Y, during his US tour, placing Weinberg’s presence firmly within Russia’s artistic heritage. (photo: Gidon Kremer with Elisaveta Blumina, courtesy of artist)

Weinberg [sometimes appears also in print as Vainberg or Vajnberg – New Grove Dictionary] was born 1919 in Warsaw and lost his entire family during the Holocaust. Escaping Nazi occupation, he fled his native Poland to the Soviet Union, and following a personal invitation from the famed composer Dmitri Shostakovitch to perform for him in Moscow after receiving the score of his First Symphony, settled there, in close proximity. Suffering arrest, interrogation and imprisonment in 1953 under Stalin’s Anti-Semitic persecutions, Weinberg only barely escaped deportation to Siberia thanks to Shostakovitch’s intervention on his behalf and Stalin’s timely death. Official recognition was only slow to follow in his life in form of honorary titles: “Honored Artist of the Russian Republic” in 1971, “People’s Artist of the Russian Republic” in 1980 and “State Prize of the UDSSR” in 1990, but he died in1996 in poor health and largely forgotten, his legacy almost lost behind the Iron Curtain.

“While often engaged with and inspired by some of the tragic events surrounding his life, Weinberg’s artistic imagination stands above his life’s biographic accounts, standing the test of time. While uniquely present, his personal idiom rises above any biographical data, connecting it to a larger artistic truth and humanistic experience,“ says David Fanning in his autobiography, which was published in 2010, partially based on materials collected by Per Skans, who passed away in 2007 before finalizing publication.

Blumina, who is currently assembling her own collective of interviews for her upcoming Weinberg compendium with musicians who directly collaborated with Weinberg and include among others Pavel Kogan, Thomas Sanderling and Michail Jurowski, aims to dig deep:“Despite his immense productivity during his Soviet years, Weinberg continuously suffered from Antisemitic sentiments, affecting both his work and personal life. During all of his life he remained an outsider within Soviet society, keeping his strong polish accent and a low profile, often missing out on opportunities, which were given to others instead.” she says. When Fanning mentions that Weinberg never allowed himself to be “victimized by oppression,” Blumina feels he was rather “deeply affected” by it. “His solace were those rare triumphant moments, when his work was championed by established artists like violinists David Oistrach, Rudolf Barshaj and Leonid Kogan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Emil Gilels, the Borodin Quartet and conductors Kirill Kondrashin and Vladimir Fedoseyev.”

The conductor Thomas Sanderling, another great champion of Weinberg’s works, with whom Blumina also recorded her latest, much lauded CD of works by post-Soviet composers Ustvolskaja, Silvestrov and Kanchelli with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, (released in September of 2016 on Naxos’ Grand Piano label) describes Weinberg as:

” A human being of incredible purity; he did not live in a country – not in the reality that surrounded him.”

Weinberg found his most powerful and fervent advocate, friend and inspiration during his life in Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, already impressed by Weinberg’s promising early work, engaged on behalf of the young composer with the KGB, safeguarding him from deportation, and commended his work in public. While never enrolled as his pupil, Weinberg deeply admired Shostakovitch’s work and persona, (according to Fanning) declaring himself as his “pupil, his flesh and blood.”

But there are certainly many other influences observable in Weinberg’s work, like those of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók and Mahler for example.

“Both Shostakovitch and Weinberg worked across a wide range of genres and in a gamut of styles, from folk idioms (including Jewish ones especially for Weinberg) to twelve-note elements. Yet for all the unmistakable echoes of his revered role model, Weinberg,” observes Fanning, “retained a higher level of independence than many of his Soviet colleagues wanted to believe, distancing himself both from official academic conservatism and, in the 1960s and after, from the younger generations’ fervent embrace of Western-style modernism.”

And Robert R. Reilly, music critic of Crisis Magazine, points out: “Like Shostakovitch, Weinberg wrote expansive music with big gestures and extraordinarily long-lined melodies…both composers were classical symphonists who wrote essentially tonally oriented music… and [certainly], each composer in tribute, liberally quoted the others works. [But] the similarities with Shostakovitch, may cause one to overlook Weinberg’s own significant melodic gift and his extraordinary ability to develop [highly original] themes. Weinberg, [at times ridiculed as ‘the little Shostakovitch]’ worked with traditional harmonic and tonal expectations and rarely failed to meet them in satisfying and novel ways. He could sustain a sense of expectancy over long spans of time with vast melodic and contrapuntal structures. Weinberg was more romantic than Shostakovitch, and wrote with irony, sometimes humor, instead of Shostakovitch’s sardonic bombast and cutting edge. Of Weinberg’s Sixth Symphony, Shostakovitch had exclaimed: ‘I wished I could put my own name to this symphony,’ and he dedicated his tenth string quartet to Weinberg. “

“Terminally ill, in March of 1975, Shostakovitch attended all of the rehearsals for the premiere of Weinberg’s opera The Madonna and the Soldier,” writes Martin Anderson (Classical.net 1996).

He also knows about Weinberg’s role as collaborating pianist with Shostakovitch: “When Shostakovitch presented his latest works to the Composer’s Union and to the Soviet Ministry of Culture , it was generally in four-hand versions, in which Weinberg was his habitual accompanist. In 1967, Weinberg replaced the ailing Shostakovitch in the premiere of his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, with Vishnevskaya, Oistrakh and Rostropovich.”

In the last years, some of Weinberg’s operas have received live performances to high acclaim in Germany and Austria.

In 2015, The Lyric Opera of Chicago presented David Pountey’s production of Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” Op.97 (1967-68) under Sir Andrew Davis; certainly further confirmation for the increased appreciation of Weinberg’s idiom internationally. (photo credit: Weinberg by Tommy Persson © Olga Rakhalskaya)

But despite all recent activity, Weinberg can still be regarded as a composer whose work leaves room for revelation to performers, concert producers and new audiences alike. Hopefully, more passionate champions of his work like Blumina will follow suit, inspiring further emanation of his work.

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