I will begin with a citation from the composer’s notes to the
disc. It’s a key to understanding this music: “I spent my childhood
in the small Russian town of Aleksin, situated on the river
Oka, 300 kilometres south of Moscow. My grandfather was an Orthodox
priest there. When I was growing up, purely entertaining, commercial
music was not yet as ubiquitous as it is now on television,
radio, in stations, sea-ports and shops … It was still possible
to hear choral songs, the sound of the accordion, the strumming
of the balalaika, funeral laments, and the cries of shepherds
at dawn, coming from beyond a river, enveloped in fog. All that
distant and now extinct musical atmosphere of a Russian province
is strongly etched in my childhood memories. I think, in all
three compositions on this recording, it has found its own nostalgic
In the post-Shostakovich era, Rodin Shchedrin was and still
is probably the closest to epitomizing the Russian national
character in music. Not the Soviet, not the populist or the
avant-garde. More and more since the 1980s, it’s all about the
Russia of his childhood, of his memory, of the spirit that probably
still survives only in a few remote villages and monasteries,
where the time stands still. The nature, the mysticism, the
faith, the folklore met and mixed here. If your concept of Russian
music is based on the image of painted ivanushkas prancing on
balalaikas, or on the more idealistic views of Tchaikovsky and
Rachmaninov, you may be surprised. Shchedrin works on such deep
levels that he rarely reaches the surface for glossy ornaments
- except occasionally, as in the ballet “The Hunchbacked Horse”.
He works with the roots, elements and essence of Russian music.
In this, he is closer to the raw and rough images of Mussorgsky
and Stravinsky. Unlike these two, he is not a revolutionary.
Also, unlike them, he is a great master of the orchestral palette.
And this is nowhere as discernible as in his Concertos for Orchestra,
of which there are five. The present disc contains the world
premiere recordings of No.4 and No.5, as well as of a smaller
piece the orchestration of which is no less masterful.
The Concerto No.4, “Khorovody” (Roundelays, or Round Dances)
takes its start from those “cries of shepherds at dawn, coming
from beyond a river, enveloped in fog”. This is the warmest
of the three compositions, lit by a serene smile. The opening
scene, led by the evocative alto recorder, is unforgettable.
The dance begins, first reticent, then becomes more intense
and adventurous. Like a Russian echo of Ravel’s Bolero, the
first part of the work unfolds in one slow crescendo. The music
is based on a small set of motifs over an ostinato bass, with
fluid changes of color and a shower of orchestral effects. In
the middle section a new dance begins, first tiptoeing, then
more angular and dissonant. It reminded me a little of the Giuoco
delle coppie from Bartók’s namesake work. The tension grows
and bursts into an exalted celebration, with a lot of bells
and shiny metal. The ending returns to the quiet and pastoral
scene of the opening. It is less varicolored now: the dancers,
tired but content, return to their homes. The entire concerto
is so colorful and full of surprises that it is hard to believe
that this is its first recording since it was composed in 1989.
On the other hand, it is an almost half hour long extended folk
dance, without that much action. What one can see as mesmerizing,
another may call monotonous. I liked the piece. It has some
of the primal rawness and rhythmic urgency of The Rite of Spring.
The composer has likened his Concerto for Orchestra No.5 to
“a journey by troika, the traditional Russian carriage drawn
by three horses, travelling to four cities, and hearing different
songs along the route”. The sound of the jingle bells and the
“sleigh-ride” rhythm define the opening section and will return
later, unifying the entire work. We hear archaic monotone chanting;
pizzicato imitating a balalaika; a melancholic dance; sleigh
bells again. The voyage is long – long - long. This may be right
for a description of endless Russian landscapes, but for a concerto
for orchestra such extended development is unusual and probably
unexpected. However, Shchedrin keeps entertaining us along the
way with his orchestration. A new section opens like a new page.
The music is bright and solemn, with the stride of a stately
procession. Next comes a celebratory page, one big fanfare.
It ends in a massive explosion of bells of all kinds and sorts.
The last minutes return us to the troika ride. The melancholic
dance that we already heard reveals its nature: it is a “tsyganochka”,
a Russian gipsy dance. The final resolution is effective and
spectacular. Although this concerto is shorter than its predecessor,
I must confess that I had some difficulty maintaining attention.
There are some wonderful moments, but they are as wide-spaced
as towns on an endless Russian road.
The third piece, Kristallene Gusli, was written as a present
to Shchedrin’s friend Toru Takemitsu. It reflects the static,
meditative style of the late Japanese composer. The music is
like a shining field of plasma, a golden cloud, inside which
solid objects float and turn slowly. It is fascinating and does
not outstay its welcome. It can also serve as a manual of string
effects. Unlike melancholic Takemitsu, the mood is positive,
bright and confident. The composer inserts his signature near
the end: in the low background two horns exchange phrases which
sound to me like citations from Shchedrin’s first Concerto for
Orchestra, Naughty Limericks.
The playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the
baton of Kirill Karabits is excellent. The score is loaded with
non-standard moves and touches, every instrument has an important
role, and the orchestra shows no weak links. The required virtuosity
is provided in plenty. All layers are balanced, and every subtle
detail is heard. This is also due to the outstanding engineering.
The notes by the composer, by the conductor, and by Andrew Burn
provide a kaleidoscopic view on these kaleidoscopic works, each
complementing the others.
These works should have been recorded long ago. But they weren’t,
and now, frankly, I’m afraid there won’t be doubling in the
near future: the recording by Karabits hits the bull’s eye.
This music is not for easy entertainment. Although it is tonal
and accessible, it does not serve you something sweet and easy
to digest. Instead, try to see the world through the composer’s
eyes, take a swim in this sea of iridescent colors, relax and
trust him. In the end you will be glad that you took this endless
see also review by Nick