By Marek Zebrowski

Piotr Sałajczyk, a distinguished pianist, chamber musician and pedagogue, recently issued a recording of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Piano Sonatas No. 1, Op. 5, No. 2, Op. 8 and No. 3, Op. 31. Issued by the Polish Radio/Program Two (PRCD 2386), this disc is a welcome addition to the continuing rediscovery of this fascinating composer.

Born in Warsaw in 1919 to Russian-Jewish parents, Weinberg began studying at the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of twelve. His student friends included Andrzej Panufnik, whose Piano Trio, Op. 1 was world premiered by Weinberg and his Conservatory colleagues. A virtuoso pianist himself, Weinberg also dipped his toes into the film industry by performing as a café pianist in a 1936 film, Fredek uszczęśliwia świat [Freddy makes the world happy]. 

Shortly after World War II broke out, in early September 1939 Weinberg fled from Warsaw to Minsk, and continued his studies there, concentrating on composition under the guidance of Vasily Zolotarev. In 1941 he was forced to flee the Nazi advance once again by resettling in Tashkent. He returned to Moscow a few years later and resided there for the rest of his life. He also became a close friend and neighbor of Dmitry Shostakovich.

Piotr Sałajczyk’s album features Weinberg’s first three Piano Sonatas, composed during his early years in the Soviet Union. Sonata No. 1, Op. 5, a work in four movements, dates from 1940 when Weinberg was still studying in Minsk. His Second Sonata, Op. 8, was written in 1942 in Tashkent but world-premiered at an October 1943 concert in Moscow by the famous Russian pianist, Emil Gilels. Weinberg’s Sonata No. 3, Op. 31 was written in 1946. Each of the three Sonatas abounds in contrasts—the First is moody and virtuosic in turns, the Second (also in four movements) mixes Bach-like references with dances and echoes of Jewish folk music, and the Third is filled with a rather gloomy and foreboding harmonic language, perhaps reflecting Weinberg’s veiled despair at the world recovering from a devastating conflict.

Throughout this technically and musically challenging repertoire, Piotr Sałajczyk’s virtuosity comes through in full splendor. Crisply articulated passagework lends much sparkle to the brief and frenetic Vivace finale of Weinberg’s Second Sonata as well as to the closing Allegro molto of the First. The Adagios (the opening section of the First Sonata, the third movement of the Second and the middle movement of the Third), are appropriately atmospheric and always deeply musical. Sałajczyk’s perfect sense of the grotesque and parody elements in the Allegretto second movement of Sonata No. 1 and the quasi-waltz (Allegretto in Sonata No. 2), makes these movements particularly poignant and convincing. The recording, made at the concert hall of the Szymanowski Music Academy in Katowice on a Steinway concert grand, will leave every listener with the impression of being present at a live performance.

[Image source: Agata Wolska (photographer: Karolina Sałajczyk)]