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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu, Suite (1919) [21:02]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 5* [32:19]
Denis Matsuev (piano)*
Symphonieorchestrer des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. 9-10 December 2004, Philharmonie am Gastang, Munich
SONY CLASSICAL 82876703262001 [53:21]

 

These days Mariss Jansons seems to be making most of his recordings live. He’s already made several with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for their own label. BMG Sony appear to have launched a series of live recordings in which Jansons conducts the other European orchestra that he leads, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Recently I acquired and enjoyed very much Jansons’ new Concertgebouw recording of Petrushka (1947) - coupled with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances on RCO Live RCD 05004 – so I was keen to hear his version of L’Oiseau de feu.

This is a most impressive account of Stravinsky’s suite, with the BRSO on top form. Jansons adopts quite a flowing tempo for the Introduction and then obtains some tremendously agile playing in the Firebird’s Dance and the succeeding Variation. I loved the delicacy with which he and his players invest ‘Ronde des princesses’, in which we hear some marvellous solo playing from several of the orchestra’s principals. The violently percussive chords that introduce ‘Danse Infernale du roi Kastcheï’ and then punctuate its early pages should sound like an executioner’s axe and they do here. The dance is as thrilling as it should be, exuding demonic malevolence. I noticed what I think may be a textual oddity. Unless my ears deceive me Jansons adds a tubular bell or something similarly metallic to the afore-mentioned chords. I’ve never heard this done before and it makes a curious, though not too obtrusive, effect.

The BRSO’s solo bassoonist distinguishes him- or herself in the ‘Berceuse’, supported on a gossamer carpet of soft string sound. Jansons handles the transition to  ‘Final’ superbly, the tremolando strings stealing in magically. He builds this last movement splendidly. The closing pages are impressive and celebratory but Jansons keeps the music moving forward well, thereby avoiding any risk of bombast. Overall this is a pretty outstanding account of this well-known piece.

The other item on the disc is anything but well known. Indeed, though BMG Sony don’t say so, I strongly suspect that this is the first commercial recording of Shchedrin’s Fifth Piano Concerto. The documentation doesn’t give a great deal of factual information about the piece but I was able to establish from the website of Schott, the publishers of the work, that it was premièred in October 1999 in Los Angeles by Olli Mustonen with that city’s Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The work is scored for pretty conventional forces except that there’s a requirement for a substantial percussion section, most of which seems to consist of untuned gamelan-like instruments. The latter are heard to good effect at several points in the score, especially in the finale.

The piece seems to me to lie firmly in the line of succession from the piano concerti of Bartók and Prokofiev. However, I fear that in comparison with those works what it seems to lack is any distinctive or memorable thematic profile. In saying that, however, I may be doing Shchedrin a disservice, for the writer of the liner notes seems to imply, in discussing the first movement, that this may be a deliberate tactic on the composer’s part. The first two movements seem to me to be pretty serious in tone. The first, after starting off with deceptive simplicity, becomes more and more earnest and I’d describe much of the orchestral material as “striving” in tone. Though demanding of its soloist this work is by no means a “mere” display piece. Eventually the music subsides in the last three minutes or so into some kind of calm but to my ears it’s only a restless calm and the movement ends with what sounds like a musical question mark.

The serious mien is carried over into the Andante. Much of the music is more delicate than was the case in the first movement though I’m not sure I’d join the author of the notes in describing the music as “lyrical”. From time to time the music becomes more powerful, especially around 6:00. The finale seems to be Shchedrin’s concession to the display nature of concerto writing. This is, for the most part, a helter-skelter movement. Some pretty dexterous pianism is required from the soloist but the orchestra has a crucial role to play also – as has been the case throughout the work. There’s some thunderous playing from the soloist around 7:00 after which the orchestra starts to whirl the music to an exciting conclusion and the concerto ends with a slam.

I have to say that I have struggled with this piece, even though its language is perfectly accessible. To be frank, I can’t really fathom where Shchedrin is going with it but I’m sure that’s my fault and that there is much more to the music than I’ve been able to discern so far after just a few hearings. At this stage in my familiarity with it I’m not sure that the music merits the ovation that the audience offers at the end but the performance most certainly does. Denis Matsuev is an intrepid and wholly committed soloist and I should think he needed to be on the top of his form to play this work. After all, the composer is no mean pianist himself and the Fifth is the only one of his piano concerti to date that he has not premièred himself. It’s equally evident that Matsuev’s virtuosity receives support, or perhaps I should say a partnership, from Jansons and his orchestra of the highest quality. The performance, like that of the Stravinsky, is captured in excellent, clear sound.

The playing time of this disc is not particularly generous and I think it would have widened the appeal of this CD if a third piece had been included. As it is, despite the excellence of Jansons’ performance of the Stravinsky we aren’t exactly short of good alternative versions of that piece so collectors who don’t want to investigate the Shchedrin will undoubtedly look elsewhere. However, admirers of Shchedrin’s music should certainly snap up this release, while no doubt regretting that another of his pieces hasn’t been included to fill up the disc. It’s unlikely there will be a rival version of the concerto in the foreseeable future and even if one does appear it will have to be pretty good to surpass Matsuev and Jansons.

An enterprising coupling.

John Quinn

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