Interview with Grigory Kalinovsky

By Hans Jensen

Ovation Press: I very much like your recording of the Weinberg Violin sonatas that you recorded on the Naxos label together with pianist Tatiana Goncharova, it’s a fabulous, high level of playing and you make the music come out with such power; it’s delightful listening to that recording.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Thank you.

Ovation Press: I think Weinberg’s music should really be enjoyed so much more by everybody. People have to know more about his music.

Grigory Kalinovsky: I agree. It’s very, very good music on many levels.

Ovation Press: Did you know about his music for a long time?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, I had two connections to him. One is, as many Soviet composers, he wrote film scores, and so practically every Russian kid knew his music from the Russian animated shorts about Winnie the Pooh.

Ovation Press: I see Winnie the Pooh. Weinberg composed more than 40 works for opera, film and theater.

Grigory Kalinovsky: For film and theater- Yes. Also, my father was an opera singer and performed in his opera, The Madonna and the Soldier, and the premiere was actually reviewed by Shostakovich where he mentions my father.

Ovation Press: Wow, that’s fantastic. What’s your father’s name?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Mikhail Kalinovsky. Michael.

Ovation Press: That sounds very exciting. Was Weinberg alive at that time?

Grigory Kalinovsky: At that time, yes. He passed away in ’96, so that was after we already moved to America.

Ovation Press: Reading about Weinberg, it’s very clear that in Russia the really great musicians really knew that his music was fantastic, but somehow the regime had suppressed it especially under Stalin.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, it wasn’t suppressed to begin with but he also wasn’t very much recognized by the establishment. That also allowed Weinberg to stay off the KGB radar for a while, though he was finally arrested and spent three months in jail, until Stalin’s death resulted in his release. There was a period of about 20 years afterwards when his music was performed quite a lot, but then during the final two decades of his life he again lost popularity among the younger musicians, and was unfortunately almost forgotten towards the end of his life.

Ovation Press: Then there’s also stories that his father-in-law was killed by Stalin. Is that true…?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right. Yes!

Ovation Press: Do we really know that for sure?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, that’s pretty much an established fact. Solomon Mikhoels was assassinated on Stalin’s order. And that is why Weinberg was arrested as well.

Ovation Press: But I read that they made it look like an accident?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, they made it look like a “hit-and-run” accident.

Ovation Press: Lets talk about Weinberg’s background: He was born in Poland and of Jewish heritage?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right.

Ovation Press: Then when he went to Russia, his family stayed back and his parents and sister died in a concentration camp.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, he was 19. He had just graduated from Warsaw Conservatory as a pianist, and so when the Nazis came, he fled on foot with his sister, but as they were walking through the woods at night the sister got scared and turned back home, while he made it on foot all the way to Belarus, to Minsk, and so he was the only one from his family who survived.

Ovation Press: I think that was in 1939 or something like that?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes.

Ovation Press: Shostakovich played an important role in his life – do you know how they were introduced to each other?

Grigory Kalinovsky: After a few months in Minsk, as the Germans advanced, he was evacuated to Tashkent, which was a popular evacuation destination for artists and musicians, and that’s where he met Shostakovich, who became his friend and mentor.

Ovation Press: Oh, I see. When listening to Weinbergs music Shostakovich’s inspiration can be felt.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Oh, for sure.

Ovation Press: When did you first start to play his violin sonatas?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, we had the idea for this recording I think in 2009, and that’s where we started looking at the pieces. Naxos was interested, and so we got the contract to record them. We learned and recorded all of the sonatas through 2010, but then there were some unforeseen personal and technical difficulties, which resulted in the final production being finished only in 2016.

Ovation Press: Yes making a recording of a number of works is always very difficult. listening to this recording there is such a coherency between the way you perform it and how all the pieces evolve. How would you evaluate the sonatas, do you feel that the violin sonatas are conected?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, it’s interesting because there is definitely evolvement. Although you have to remember that the first five sonatas were written within a decade.

Ovation Press: Oh, I see. It’s not like there’s three periods of Beethoven’s music.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right, exactly. Having said that though, there is definite development in how he wrote and in the mastery of writing. For sure, the fifth sonata, which was the last one to be written during that period, is probably the greatest masterpiece. The Sixth Sonata was written much later in 1982 and actually, judging by what I know, it wasn’t even seen by any violinist because it was found in the composer’s archive in manuscript when we already started working on the project. And so it was typeset for us by Peermusic publishers…

Ovation Press: Oh, so the sixth sonata was not available before?

Grigory Kalinovsky: No. We were informed by Peermusic – the publishers of Weinberg’s works – that they discovered this sonata, and so we added it to the project. Peermusic typeset it for us quickly, which made it easier to learn, though we had to make some editorial decisions, since the piece was never published, and the manuscript contained obvious errors, such as wrong number of beats in a bar, or chords that are unplayable on violin.

Ovation Press: That sounds exciting!

Grigory Kalinovsky: Probably number five is the most masterful work, the largest in scale. But I wouldn’t say that this diminishes from any of the other works. Sonata Four to me is completely otherworldly. It’s phenomenal music. They all have their own sonority and atmosphere, and at the same time, going through post production and listening to the whole set together, I came to appreciate that there is definitely an overall aura that connects them. Even with hearing a little bit of Prokofiev here and a little bit of Shostakovich there, you can hear Weinberg’s own voice in every bar of every piece.

Ovation Press: Yes his music is very powerful. Many of his compositions including symphonies and of course operas were influenced by war and also Jewish folk music. He says himself, I quote, “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This was not my own choice. It was dedicated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century, the last century.”

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, that’s very clear. I would say especially the fourth sonata is incredibly dark and deep music.

Ovation Press: But the sixth sonata I think was written in memory of his mother.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right, and it’s probably I would say the most tragic of them all. Even though it’s a single movement piece that’s six minutes long. It starts with a 90-second violin solo, and it actually took me a while to kind of come up with an image for that opening because it’s just running eighth notes. It sounds like a clock, and I finally realized that’s what you hear when you lie awake at night and you hear all the clocks in the house going at the same time.

Ovation Press: What horrible experiences people had to go through. You can also imagine a young man, 19 years of age, escaping away from a situation, and then later knowing that his parents and sister died in such horrible circumstance. It must just be something that was buried deep in his soul, Yes those events should stay deep in all of our souls. We can never forget that.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes. And the piece is quite violent in a way but it’s also extremely lonely. You can hear his pain and loneliness through the whole piece even in the most loud and violent moments.

Ovation Press: And I think it was written 14 years before his death.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes.

Grigory Kalinovsky: As for Jewish overtones, they are definitely present this music, especially in the finale of the third sonata, but not openly so, much less so than the finale of the Shostakovich piano trio, for example.

Ovation Press: Yes that is very clear.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Here it’s much more subtle but it’s definitely there. And also in the Sonatina, which was written in 1948 as a reaction to the regime – there was a big wave of anti-contemporary… sentiment

Ovation Press: Oh, that’s when everybody was told to compose…music for the people

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right, to write “for the people”. So he wrote this violin sonatina, and actually it’s not “sonatina” because of length – it’s not that short—I think it’s only a sonatina because it’s lighter in character. By length, it’s as long as some of his sonatas. But it’s definitely more fun, lighter. And there is a funny sort of a combination of Arabic and Jewish character in the second movement.

Ovation Press: I did not notice that when listening

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, when the piano solo starts, followed by the violin, the opening phrases sound almost Scheherezade-like, and then all of a sudden you get these clearly Jewish gestures.

Ovation Press: That is very important how music can manage to connect cultures and form positive relations between different cultures.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Of course.

Ovation Press: What are other distinguishing features in these violin sonatas?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Well, besides compositional language, in a few sonatas there are things that at least I personally haven’t seen in any other piece for an equal partnership, like a violin-piano sonata. For example, a very long violin solo or a really long piano solo. Shostakovich sonata has that to some extent in the finale, which is passacaglia form, and one of the variations is for piano solo, while one is for violin solo, but they are both quite compact. Weinberg, on the other hand, starts his fourth sonata with incredibly beautiful and very long piano solo introduction, which could belong in a piano solo piece – in fact, hearing the opening, you could assume you were listening to a sonata for piano. Also in the fifth sonata has a huge piano solo in the middle of the last movement – basically a complete stand-alone fugue.

Ovation Press: Yes He was also a very fine pianist.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, this was his initial education. He graduated as a pianist from the Warsaw Conservatory. Also, I would say technically not easy music to play by any means.

Ovation Press: As a pianist did he have an understanding for the violin?

Grigory Kalinovsky: I think he did but I think he didn’t care, kind of like Brahms. Brahms didn’t write comfortably for any instrument – music was more important than playability. Weinberg’s violin writing is especially difficult for intonation, because the harmonies change constantly and the music constantly switches between different registers, and very uncomfortable registers at that. One or the hardest things for me learning these pieces was actually to find the notes, because the ear had to get used to all the harmonic changes.

Ovation Press: Yes Weinberg’s music is a very unusual, harmonic language…

Grigory Kalinovsky: Right. Even though it’s very tonal music it is also very complex.

Ovation Press: But listening to your recording, one doesn’t hear that it is difficult. it sounds very convincing.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Thank you! Also I remember Tatiana complaining that he wrote in such a way that made it very awkward for the piano as well, often having left hand all the way in the bass and right hand all the way in the treble. This makes very powerful musical effect, but very difficult to actually perform.

Ovation Press: It’s also clear that you have played a lot together with Tatiana.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Oh, for sure. Yeah, we’ve been playing together for 25 years.

Ovation Press: Yes that’s very obvious because there is such a harmony in the playing, and how you relate so naturally to each other. It’s beautiful.

Grigory Kalinovsky: Thank you.

Girogory Kalinovsky is co-author together with Hans Jensen of the Ovation Press Books title ViolinMind: Intonation and Technique