Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b.1932)
Concerto for Orchestra No.4 “Khorovody” (Roundelays) (1989) [28:13]
Concerto for Orchestra No.5 “Four Russian Songs” (1998) [21:46]
Kristallene Gusli (Crystal Psaltery) (1994) [8:52]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits
rec. July 2009, Lighthouse, Poole, UK
NAXOS 8.572405 [58:51]

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 echo.”

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 Russian road.

Oleg Ledeniov

see also review by Nick Barnard

You will be glad that you took this endless Russian road.