The Grammy nominations, announced this morning, contain many familiar names: Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Thom Yorke, Billie Eilish, and many other pop musicians whose works I have heard but could probably not identify. But there’s one album among the nominations that deserves some extra attention: Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21, a collection of works by the Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, recorded by the City of Birmingham Symphonic Orchestra and issued by the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. The album has been nominated for Best Orchestral Performance, and it should win.
Born to a family of Yiddish thespians in Poland in 1919, Weinberg went on to achieve some renown within the Soviet Union, becoming close friends with perhaps the most famous Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, in the 1940s. Antisemitism — both from the Nazis and from the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — weighed heavily on the composer. Weinberg’s sister and parents died in the Holocaust; a few years later, Solomon Mikhoels, the famed Yiddish theater director and Weinberg’s father-in-law, was murdered on Stalin’s orders. Weinberg was even arrested as part of the infamous Doctor’s Plot, an early 1950s campaign against Soviet Jews prompted by allegations of a Jewish conspiracy to assassinate Stalin. After Stalin died in 1953, Weinberg was able to return to something like a normal life. He lived in Moscow and composed until his death in 1996.
Often, music inflected with Jewish themes suffers from the dual problem of shmaltz and synagogue; it sounds like either kitsch (think Fiddler on the Roof), or wailing with a melody (Max Bruch’s arrangement of Kol Nidre). Gustav Mahler, an Austrian Jew who died eight years before Weinberg was born, satirized this dichotomy subtly in the third movement of his First Symphony, in what Theodor Adorno identified as an “unmediated contrast to the point of ambivalence between mourning and mockery.”
Instead, Weinberg achieved something special and distinct from this tradition that you can hear specifically on this new, now Grammy-nominated recording. Much of the album is taken up by “Kaddish,” his final completed symphony. Dedicated to the victims of his hometown Warsaw Ghetto, “Kaddish” opens by playing with familiar Jewish feelings of desolation, an ecstatic string-heavy burst of grief for the dead.
“Kaddish” gets a bit brassier as it proceeds, using the tuba and French horn to twist traditionally epic-sounding themes into frenzied expressions of pain. It is not unrelenting — melodies break off in the middle and reform themselves, and an occasional solo, like a wandering clarinet, gives the feeling of stumbling through the rubble. It presents an eloquent juxtaposition of violence and what it leaves behind. It conjures the image of Adren Brody, playing the Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Spilman, mournfully wandering through the liquidated Warsaw Ghetto in The Pianist.
“Kaddish” ends in a place similar to where it begins, with a bold lamentation, but it has a softer edge. A pulverizing string-section plays against a discomfiting brass, concluding with one last gust of strings. Then, a softer melody emerges, barely. After the catastrophe, there is only quiet.