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Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
The Ancient Melodies of Russian folk-songs (2007) [17.53]
Cello Sonata (1996) [34.24]
In the style of Albeniz (1959) [4.36]
Quadrille from the opera ‘Nicht nur liebe’ (Not love alone) (1961) arr. Grigory Singer [6.57]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Rodion Shchedrin (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, 25 May 2007. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5831 [63.53]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is, in many ways, a follow-up to Wallfisch’s Nimbus recording of Prokofiev and Shchedrin. That was with the Southbank Sinfonia and was recorded in 2007 (NI 5816). It offered us the latter’s Parabola Concertante. It’s good that the composer can now stand centre-stage because for most of us Shchedrin’s music will be little known. He has a vast work-list of operas, ballets, concertos, three symphonies and several miscellaneous pieces. Chamber music is not an especially large area of interest for him so the works on this new Nimbus disc make especially intriguing listening. What makes the collection especially exciting is the rarity of having the composer accompany a world famous soloist. One now almost certainly knows that this is how the music is meant to sound.

In his inset notes the estimable Calum MacDonald writes about Shchedrin’s musical language and styles as follows: “his output falls into roughly three periods: an early stage up to the early ’60s influenced by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky” and his love of Spanish music represented by his now famous Carmen Suite. That Iberian strand is represented here by the last two pieces on the disc. Then came the 1960s-1980s when he “incorporated Jazz, rock styles, and neo-classicism into an increasingly more personal idiom”. Then came his third period “where the various influences are more highly integrated and, in addition, drawing on childhood memories and Russian Orthodox church music”.

Another influence mentioned elsewhere in the notes is Shchedrin’s love of Russian folklore and folk music. This comes to fruition in the first work on the CD ‘The ancient melodies of Russian folk-songs’. The composer uses tunes published in 1877 by Rimsky-Korsakov in an anthology of one hundred. This was drawn on also by Stravinsky. In truth Shchedrin’s approach is not one of writing variations on little modal themes but one where the tunes are not always even discernible. They act as a sort of catalyst to promote the mood of a brief essay. There is gloominess about each which characteristically conveys a sense of loss for an idyllic Russian past before the Great War - the time of the old Tsarist world. There is bitterness, melancholy and a sense of tragedy too. Even with a vaguely witty movement like number two with its pizzicato line answered by something approaching a canonic staccato piano, there is a sort of cynicism and pain. The fourth movement is really a lament and the fifth muses on a theme collected originally by Tchaikovsky in 1871 and used in his First Quartet. I must add that this is not, for me, a piece to which I shall often return.

The Sonata is the main work on the disc. It was, like the ‘Parabola Concertante’ mentioned above. There’s also a Cello Concerto of 1994 written for and first performed by his great friend the late Mstislav Rostropovich. The Sonata falls into three unconventional movements and is, in my view, a stunning work. Certainly, as Calum McDonald admits, right from the start you feel the presence of Shostakovich. Shchedrin took over the chairmanship of the Russian Union of Composers after Shostakovich’s death. There is something very atmospheric about the dry drumming percussiveness of the outer movements. Also memorable is the almost ridiculous grotesquerie of the middle movement marked ‘Moderato’ but ‘Capriccioso’ would have been a good epithet. The influence of Schnittke may be detected in this work - or was it the other way about – together with a folk-like tune with “a nagging dotted rhythm”. The music is dark and expressive but has a few lighter moments. It ends as it were, in mid-sentence emphasizing the dramatic nature of the material. It is not atonal, but it’s quite impossible to pin down a key for long if at all. Bi-tonality and polytonality are not far from the surface. This creates an uneasy tension between the past and the present; Russian music of our time has never been confident enough to resolve this tension.

As for the performance it is very powerful. I am sure that all performers would admit that there is no such thing as a perfect technique and the composer certainly stretches the cellist’s skills. This is at times almost beyond the possible. This is true particularly in the upper register and even the great Raphael Wallfisch would agree.

The last pieces on the disc are both miniatures but carry the of a strong individuality. The ‘Tango’ in the style of Albeniz is not altogether in Albeniz’s style at all. Indeed its somewhat aggressive nature, especially at the beginning seems rather desperate. It’s a curiously disturbing work. By contrast the last piece, the ’Quadrille’ is the most enjoyable and easily accessible piece on the disc and is good fun.

The recording is first class and I must add how much I always like Nimbus’s house style of booklet photography. Here is sunlight cutting through a forest but in mysterious black and white.

Gary Higginson


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