Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ensemble Epomeo: Leo Weiner, an Introduction.

I admit there are several reasons I look forward to going to a live performance: sometimes it's because I can savor an old favorite one more time or maybe a piece or a composer I'm not familiar with; sometimes it's a new piece (either a world premiere or something that's “new to me”); at any time, it's just to enjoy hearing music being brought to life right before my ears.

On Ensemble Epomeo's concert this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at Temple Ohev Sholom are two composers I'm not familiar with, both Hungarians overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries.

György Kurtág celebrated his 90th birthday this past Friday and is generally acclaimed as one of the leading composers in the world today though I have to admit I've had little opportunity to hear his music live. (You can read the post about his "Signs, Games, and Messages" and watch a piano-duet concert given by him and his wife of 68 years, recorded in 2012, here.)

Leo Weiner is a composer I've rarely heard, maybe one or two folk-influenced pieces, and those because I played them on the radio years ago. But listen to the opening of this clip, the third movement of the String Trio the Epomeo will be performing this weekend:

This is a performance by a trio calling itself “Fatum” (no, actually, it seems they call themselves “FATUM,” judging by their You-Tube post).

The first thing that went through my mind while listening to this was “why have I never heard this piece before?!” The opening cradle-song may be simplicity itself, but I'd bet it made you stop and listen.)

While Beethoven needs no introduction, that didn't stop me from blogging about him and his early work, the E-flat String Trio Op. 3, which concludes this concert.

So in these posts, let's focus on the two Hungarian composers you're probably unfamiliar with who're on the first half of the program.

Leo Weiner
When the average concert-goer thinks of 20th Century Hungarian Composers, Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly come to mind and, with any luck, Ernő Dohnányi (though with the more familiar German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnanyi, one might be unaware of his actual ethnicity). But these are major composers from the 1st Half of the 20th Century: less on the average radar would be those of the 2nd Half of the 20th Century, less familiar on American concert programs, names like György Ligéti and György Kurtág.

The first half of Ensemble Epomeo's program begins with music by György Kurtág, regarded as a major living composer today, and a less well-known early 20th Century composer, Leo Weiner, more overlooked than forgotten - at least in this country (one has to be known before one is forgotten, I guess).

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Consider these dates:

Ernő Dohnányi – 1877- Feb. 9th 1960
Bela Bartók – 1881-1945
Zoltan Kodaly – 1882-1967
Leo Weiner – 1885- Sept. 13th 1960

Musically, Weiner never strayed far from the Romantic ideals of the early-19th Century with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and occasionally Brahms the greatest influences on his style. He never became the collector of folk music his colleagues Bartók and Dohnányi became, but for a while he employed folk songs within his already established Romantic style.

While his biography fills barely 2/3s of a column of the 1980 Grove Dictionary (compared to the 26 dedicated to Bartók), it goes on to list some 60 works ranging from opera and ballet to symphonic poems, divertimentos and dance suites, a piano concertino and two violin concertos (though these are arrangements of his two violin sonatas), three string quartets, numerous piano pieces (for concert performance and for teaching), as well as this String Trio he composed in 1908.

Born in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the year Brahms completed his 4th Symphony, Weiner was playing the piano at an early age before attending the Budapest High School of Music & Art (usually referred to as the Academy of Music) when he was 16. Here, he studied piano with the German-born teacher, Hans von Kössler (known in Hungarian as Janós Koessler) who also taught Dohnányi, Bartók and Kodaly.

Weiner won several prizes for his compositions while in school, including the Serenade Op. 3 in 1906, one prize the following year allowing him to travel to Vienna, Munich, Berlin and Paris.

Then, in 1908, he became a theory teacher at the Budapest Academy where he'd been a student. And he composed his String Trio, Op. 6. He was 23.

Meanwhile, Zoltan Kodaly had already begun collecting folk songs among the more-remote rural villages of Hungary, starting in 1905 and then, after writing a thesis about structure in folk songs, convinced his friend Bela Bartók to join him in 1907. Both composers began writing their first string quartets in 1908.

Dohnányi had already gone to Berlin to teach at the invitation of violinist Joseph Joachim for whom Brahms had written so many works, but especially his Violin Concerto. He would remain there until 1915.

Hungarian Stamp honoring Leo Weiner
Not many details are mentioned in the few biographical entries I can find on Leo Weiner: he became composition teacher at his school in 1912 and in 1920 became Professor of Chamber Music, becoming one of the most highly regarded performance coaches in the Hungarian capital, gaining international recognition for his students' work. Though he was named “professor emeritus” in 1949, he continued teaching until his death.

Curiously, there is no mention of what went on in Weiner's life during World War II after Hungary, twisting itself into a fascist state, became an ally of Germany and Italy before being occupied by Nazi troops in 1944. Bartók left the country to die in poverty in New York City in 1945; Kodaly sought asylum in a convent for him and his Jewish wife where they lived until liberation in 1945.

But what of a Jewish teacher and composer named Leo Weiner?

For instance, how did Weiner escape the "Hungarianization" laws passed by the fascist regime in the 1920s and '30s which required Hungarian-born citizens to change their Germanic names? A young Jewish student like György Stern changed his last name to Solti (he would go by Georg after he fled Hungary in 1938). 

Following the Nazi take-over of Hungary in March, 1944, Ernő Dohnányi left Hungary for already-occupied Austria that November, and from there eventually emigrated to the United States where he taught piano at the Florida State University at Tallahassee until his death in 1960, seven months before Leo Weiner died in Budapest.

During the years of waiting for his emigration papers at the end of World War II, Dohnányi was investigated several times regarding his political role in war-time Hungary, each time cleared of any political crimes. He received documentary support from several Jewish colleagues and students who described his activities on behalf of the resistance during the Holocaust.

In fact, Leo Weiner wrote at least two testimonials pointing out the majority of Dohnányi’s students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner’s own compositions, even during the Nazi regime.

Among Weiner's "chamber music" students were cellist Janos Starker and conductors Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, each of whom also studied piano with Bartók (Solti also studied composition with Dohnányi). And, by the way, also György Kurtág.

So, against that backdrop, here is his String Trio in G Minor, Op. 6, just one of his, as one biographical entry on-line puts it, “very charming and conservative works.”

This performance of the first movement is by the Deák Trio with siblings Marta, Anna and György Deák, recorded at a 2010 summer concert (complete with obbligato birdsong) in Pecs, Hungary, following their winning the Leo Weiner National Chamber Music Competition earlier that year. Unfortunately, I can't seem to fix the video formatting issues and I'm concerned the sound may be too metallic for most people's ears, though I suppose it could be issues with my computer's speakers.

I like their performance, basically, but for video and audio reasons I prefer this next ensemble, calling themselves “Fatum,” and recorded live for Spanish TV in Madrid. They've only posted the 2nd & 3rd movements on You-Tube (and I'd posted the 3rd Movement at the top of this post).


I'd already posted their performance of the Andantino, that "cradle-song" 3rd Movement, at the top of the post.

Which leaves the last movement - but since I couldn't find a reasonable performance or recording or video on-line, you'll have to see what Ensemble Epomeo does with it Sunday afternoon.

(Frankly, you had me at the lullaby that opens the 3rd Movement...)

It looks like Mr. Kurtag will be getting his own post. Stay tuned!

- Dick Strawser

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