Concerto for Orchestra No.4 Khorovody (Roundelays)
Concerto for Orchestra No.5 Four Russian Songs [21:46] Kristallene Gusli (Crystal Psaltery) [8:52]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 1-2 July 2009
NAXOS 8.572405 [58:51]
I once had a conversation with a man who can only be described as a train buff. This was the sort of person who collected LPs of recordings of the Royal Scot or the Mallard leaving at full steam some station or other. To say his interest in Classical Music was limited is an understatement. Indeed the only part which impinged on his consciousness at all was where such music overlapped with his locomotional obsession. Forget your Puffin’ Billy on its Bahnfrei, ignore the Pacific 231, miss the Coronation Scot and even the Caipira and their Little Train. He assured me the best and indeed only really realistic recreation of a train in classical music was the one that mows down Anna Karenina at the end of the eponymous ballet by Rodion Shchedrin. All of which is a rather long-winded way of making the point that Shchedrin really is a masterly wizard of the orchestra. He has an ability, proven over many years and indeed most of his works, to make a standard orchestra – sometimes with the occasional ‘novelty’ instrument – sound quite extraordinary. Ally that to a highly individual approach to form, winning use of rhythm and melody and an all-round inclusive appeal and it is easy to see why he and his works have survived and indeed flourished under the varying regimes in Russia. It could be argued that his is both one of the senior and most important living composers in Russia and by extension the world. So it is a fair reflection on the stature of the Naxos label that they have secured the world premiere recordings of these three significant works by such an important composer.
This really is a very fine disc indeed. The Bournemouth Orchestra are on top form with the sound beautifully caught by engineer Tim Handley. The liner-note includes warm personal tributes from both conductor Kirill Karabits as well as the composer himself who attended the sessions giving them that stamp of authority that it has to be said sounds evident even before reading of his presence. Karabits took up the post of the Bournemouth Principal Conductor from the 2009/10 season so these sessions from July 2009 must have represented some of his first recordings as their new director. Certainly there is an alertness and attentiveness that bodes well for the future.
Shchedrin, for all his stature has not really penetrated the minds of a broader classical music audience except for his quirky re-working of Bizet’s music for Carmen as a ballet scored for strings and percussion. Fun though that work is and full of the clever touches of orchestral colour I allude to above I would say his finest work is to found elsewhere – after all that ballet is little more than a sophisticated arrangement. My first encounter with his work was on an old Melodiya LP which included his First Concerto for Orchestra Naughty Limericks. Quite literally in this brief – eight or so minutes – work he creates a unique sound-world as well as something curiously, non-specifically pictorial. In that first concerto – I’ve never read a ‘programme’ for it as such – it has always conjured up some kind of mad fair-ground with drunken revellers, manic hurdy-gurdies and generally gleeful mayhem. The energy alone marks that out as a younger man’s music but several of the characteristics Shchedrin created there have held true for all five of his Concertos For Orchestra. The three main ones are: kaleidoscopic orchestration where material is repeated but with endlessly varying instrumentation, a single movement quasi-rondo/variation form, and this curious evocation of a non-specific programme. One characteristic that has changed is the length of the works which have become gradually longer. This is certainly true of the Concertos 1 to 4 which run 8, 10, 24 and 28 minutes respectively. That linear progression is broken by number 5 which still plays for a substantial 22 minutes, all but.
In the case of the Fourth Concerto, subtitled Roundelays,Shchedrin’s brief but insightful note gives a useful glimpse into its musical heritage. The ‘round dances’ the title alludes to refers to Russian national folk dances which the composer describes as involving an “intricate lacework of rhythmic movement, flirting, playing, competing between themselves in boisterousness, daring and gracefulness”. Translate that concept into orchestral terms and you have a pretty much ideal blueprint for a Concerto for Orchestra. But conversely it would be wrong to assume that the work will be an obvious vehicle for technical display in the sense that so many 20th Century “Concertos for Orchestra” are. For large expanses of this work the key phrase from the description above would be “intricate lacework”. Try the very opening for a perfect sample of Shchedrin’s extraordinary ear for orchestral timbre. A solo alto recorder accompanied by two orchestral flutes blowing across the head joint of their instruments. As Andrew Burn in his typically lucid and informative notes says, it sounds like “wind whistling through grasses”. A word of praise here for the unnamed recorder player who produces a stunningly simple and pure sound, beautifully caught by Tim Handley’s unfussy engineering. It is the juxtaposition of the naively simple recorder melody with the unearthly ‘modern’ flute effect over high string harmonics – a delight as ever to hear really quiet playing. Part of the pleasure with a Shchedrin work is trying to work out by ear just how on earth he creates these sounds without access to a score. After one simple statement of the recorder’s song the second main musical cell is introduced by harpsichord and strings. Each time I have heard this it has made me think of a kind of baroque version of the rocking rhythmic figure in the Dances of the Young Girls in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (figure 14 in the orchestral score). As Karabits in his contribution to the liner points out, this little ostinato figure will provide a rhythmic backbone that runs through the entire score. Returning to Shchedrin’s observation about the competition through dance it strikes me that this concerto uses the large orchestra in ‘friendly competition’. There are not many passages where every instrument seems to be playing at the same time. Instead fragmentary turns are taken for individual display – it’s a simple concept but brilliantly executed here. At twenty-eight minutes this is a long single span of music and to be honest I do not yet feel I have the full measure of this work; it is more elusive and less obviously a crowd-pleaser than many of his earlier pieces. Perhaps this explains the twenty year gap between writing and premiere recording. That being said there is such pleasure to be had in the gently varying kaleidoscope of orchestral colour that it is easy to be drawn into this mainly meditative almost minimalist world. This is reflected in the absence of harmonic variation in the sense we would expect it in romantic repertoire and the fact that there seems to be a basic pulse that underlies the entire work. Again, Andrew Burn’s note is excellent at defining the different dance sections. Shchedrin alters the material but more in the character of evolution rather than radical change. There are climactic moments in the work which are powerful and exciting – and very well played here – but the prevailing tone, and indeed my sense of the work, is something ultimately rather intimate and introverted. It is a measure of the skill of all involved how compelling this work is. The return of the opening ostinato and recorder melody towards the close is not exactly the most original or surprising compositional device but somehow here it proves to be both satisfying and charming, the final clarinet shriek leaving an interesting question mark of doubt in the midst of an essentially tranquil environment. Not a work that gives up its mysteries immediately and one where skill is masked with seeming simplicity.
The Concerto for Orchestra No.5 Four Russian Songs was a BBC Proms commission and dates from 1989. The title is somewhat mis-leading since only one of the songs used is actually authentically Russian, the others are of Shchedrin’s own invention. Again one has the sense that he has absorbed into his sound-world some of the aural effects of American minimalist composers – this is not music that rigorously obeys the precedents of that compositional genre but at the same time you have a feeling he rather likes the impact on orchestral sound that music has had – as if he is using the vocabulary if not the syntax of minimalism. Again, there are little fragmentary echoes of tunes half-remembered: a hint of Petrushka, just a murmur of The Rite. As with the previous concerto, ostinati both melodic and rhythmic are central to the work’s over-arching form but there is greater variety in the overlaying of instrumental groups playing music of contrasting materials. I like the hypnotic effect he achieves at 7:00 [track 2] where a slow-moving bass line gropes upwards while the upper strings lazily cascade out of phase in the opposite direction – there’s something of Arvo Pärt out of Andrzej Panufnik here. The first half of the work occupies a world of half-light and shadow, again contradicting one’s preconceptions about concertos for orchestra. The outbursts there are are the exceptions not the rule. However, this changes as the work progresses. There is an inexorable build towards a sustained and extended climax with homophonic string writing supporting more Panufnik/Sinfonia Sacra-esque stuttering brass fanfares and ritualistic bells. Oddly, I enjoyed this less as a passage simply because it lacked the cumulative rhythmic energy and elan I have relished so much elsewhere in Shchedrin’s work or the mystery that pervades much of the rest of this disc. However, that is all relative and the quality of the playing and engineering should again be stressed – the many complex overlapping lines clearly delineated and crisply performed. As this climax fades the music returns to the polyrhythmic passages with instrumental groups sliding over each – it is these strangely hypnotic dream-like sections where I find Shchedrin to be at his most compelling. Just as it seems this will be the world into which the music will sink there is a last dramatic chromatic convulsion that results in an oddly traditional IV/V/I cadence – the effect is just as perplexing in its unexpected literalness as when Malcolm Arnold does the same at the end of some of his symphonies – you scratch your head and ask why – there must be a reason, perhaps extra-musical but no answer is immediately apparent.
The disc is completed by the brief Crystal Psaltery. The clue to this work is in the dedication to Toru Takemitsu. Indeed, it could be argued that there is a Far Eastern tinge to both this and the concerto which opens the disc. Marked ‘sempre sotto voce’ – which implies a whispered, hushed quality that goes beyond being just quiet – this is another marvellous example of Shchedrin’s mastery of orchestral sonority. String harmonics and ricochet bow-effects create an extraordinary wind-chime rustling realm. High woodwind – so hard to play this in tune that high this quietly! – support the strings where droplets of chords fall and drip. It’s a piece all about atmosphere – and at the risk of repetition all credit again to engineer/producer Tim Handley for capturing the subtle detail here so well without resorting to synthetic highlighting. There truly is a crystalline quality about this music that is quite bewitching and how apt that this disc shimmers away into meditative silence.
There is an elusive nebulous quality here that tantalises at the same time as remaining beyond your grasp. Superficially much of this music sounds simple and even naïve but it is a mark of its significance and importance that you intuitively understand how extended familiarity will reveal depths and riches that only the best music contains.
Naxos have proved to be great supporters of contemporary music and composers from around the world and, as it is only right to expect, not all the music one has encountered on those discs is of equal merit. I would go as far as to suggest this is one of their best and most important releases of music by a living composer bar none.
One last brief observation regarding the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. All orchestras have to be chameleon-like in the ability to play music of all genres and styles. But even within that remit I have to say that the Bournemouth players excel. Just consider for a moment the diversity of the repertoire they have recorded for Naxos and how they have moulded their style and sound to the music in question: Bach and Wagner arr. Stokowski, Moeran, Bax, Bernstein, Glass or Grofé is just a random selection – quite superb but all too often taken for granted.
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