There is a certain austerity about Shchedrin's music, especially
his chamber music. It distinguishes his work from that of many
of his more lyrical contemporaries, but may also have the effect
of alienating listeners. It is perhaps an inheritance from Shostakovich,
but it is even more intense here, creating brittle, angular
sonorities, even when the music is at its most melodic.
Three of these works have explicit links with famous musicians,
Menuhin, Bach and Albeniz, but the connections rarely come close
to the surface. True enough, the two composers are quoted, but
only very briefly, and in such stylistically opposing contexts
that satire or parody is suggested.
The point really is that all these works are 100% Shchedrin,
and while he is a composer who makes a point of emphasising
his connections with the past, he also ensures that influences
are fully digested and that his authorial voice predominates.
The Menuhin-Sonata was first played by the present violinist,
Dmitry Sitkovetsky, rather than by its dedicatee, although no
explanation is given here as to why this was the case. And without
that biographical link, it is difficult to determine exactly
what the musical connections with the great violinist might
be. It is a slow, measured work, with the violin playing sustained,
often double-stopped sonorities throughout. There is something
of the religious minimalism about it, in particular the way
that everything is so defined and confident, but without being
emphatic or forced. The sonata is in a single movement lasting
around 20 minutes, and its form is quite inscrutable. As in
so many of Shchedrin's works, there are clearly secrets below
the surface, cyphers perhaps, or coded references, but they
remain a mystery, to me at any rate.
“Echo-Sonate” was written in 1984 in honour of the 300th
anniversary of J.S. Bach, but again the reference is opaque.
There is a short quotation, or possibly allusion, towards the
end of its 20 minute span, but the rest of the work inhabits
the same aesthetic as the Menuhin Sonata: long, sustained notes,
regular double-stopping, atonality but with regular visits to
more comfortable tonal environments.
The Cello Sonata is a more traditional work in many ways. Here,
Shchedrin finally allows unmediated melody to control the form.
It remains atonal, or at least founded on very extended tonality,
but in general the work is based on melodic lines, woven through
the mid- to upper-register of the solo instrument. The composer
accompanies, and gives a clue to the construction of his chamber
music textures in the way he plays. Every accompanying figure
is picked out with a spiky, angular precision. Phrases are presented
as autonomous units, and the continuity of the texture is only
possible due to the melodic linearity of the cello line. The
work's four movement structure suggests tradition, although
again traditions are invoked here rather than blindly accepted.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Classical or Romantic
sonata tradition is the sheer variety in the work; the movements
are clearly linked, but the variety of timbres and moods between
them really stands out, especially in comparison with the more
monolithic preceding works.
“Im Stile vom Albeniz” is a short lollipop at the end of the
programme. There are shades here of Shchedrin's famous Carmen
arrangement, although the tonality is far more compromised,
as are the dance rhythms on which the work is based. It calls
to mind some of Schnittke's short pastiche works for violin
and piano, less self-referential, but just as much fun.
Rodion Shchedrin is one of the great survivors of 20th
century Russian music, a fact partly explained by the solidity
of his technique and the distinctiveness of his style. There
is a curious paradox in the fact that he is able to draw on
so many external references, yet writes music that is seemingly
unaffected by its immediate context. The music presented here
dates from the 1980s and the 1990s, but there is no apparent
distinction between his works from those two decades; the collapse
of the Soviet Union seemingly an irrelevance. At the end of
the day Shchedrin always sounds like Shchedrin, austere perhaps,
and angular, but pithy too, without a note wasted. It's not
always beautiful, but it is always interesting.