Weinberg was born in Warsaw, where his father was resident composer and violinist at a Jewish theatre. In 1939 he escaped to Russia but the rest of his family were murdered by the Nazis. He managed to continue his studies in Minsk and Tashkent before he was noticed by Shostakovich and moved permanently to Moscow. He and Shostakovich remained friends and colleagues for thirty years. When Weinberg was arrested during Stalin’s final paranoid outburst, the so-called Doctor’s Plot, Shostakovich wrote to the infamous NKVD chief Beria vouching for Weinberg as an honest citizen and talented composer, whose only interest was in music. Shostakovich’s wife, Nina, even arranged for power of attorney so that they could look after Weinberg’s seven-year-old daughter if his wife was also arrested. Such actions were lunacy in those days, but Shostakovich insisted that the authorities would not touch him. Weinberg was saved by the death of Stalin and the two families celebrated with a dinner, where the power of attorney was symbolically burnt.
Weinberg’s Jewishness and his Polish nationality meant he was always an outsider in the Composers’ Union, but he was held in high esteem by musicians. His work was performed by all the leading performers of the day – Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich, Shafran, Gilels, Sanderling, Kondrashin, Rozdestvensky, Barshai and Svetlanov. Part of the difficulty of performing his works in the West was due to the difficulty of getting access to his scores. It remains extraordinary that such a major figure can have been ignored for so long.
The Seventh Quartet begins with a deeply-felt Adagio that will reappear in a different form at the opening of the last movement. From the outset the music is haunted by a sense of loss underlined by hints of a funeral march in the accompaniment. The almost meditative calm is eventually disturbed by grim and threatening chords and a chirpy figure with unmistakable shades of Jewish dance music. The massive chords gradually build into a powerful climax before the opening theme returns, allowing the movement to end peacefully.
The inspired and delictely poised Allegretto cannot but remind us of Shostakovich, leading some commentators to wonder if they have strayed into a rediscovered work by Dmitri Dmitriyevich. With the two composers playing each of their latest compositions to each other, there was bound to be a certain exchange of ideas, there was certainly a huge amount of mutual respect. As in the first movement there is the feeling that we are listening to the heart of the music without any protective layers. The last movement is by any standards extraordinary. It begins simply with a powerful theme related to the opening Adagio, which leads into a massive Allegro, whose intensity gradually overwhelms the work. It is effectively monothematic, exploring in a great arc the motif-like subject that twists and turns in its many guises, building to a monstrous and savage climax that could not have been predicted by what came before. Eventually a long decrescendo ensues that fades back into the opening Adagio. This is no neat rounding off but another devastating outcry of a soul in pain ending with a shuddering chord dragged from the depths.