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Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Carmen Suite, ballet music for strings and percussion (1967) [44:38]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Pines of Rome, symphonic poem for orchestra, P 141 (1924) [21:31]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13-17 November 2017, Philharmonie (Shchedrin), 15-17 May 2019, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Respighi)
BR KLASSIK 900183 [66:09]

The works of Rodion Shchedrin (the German “Schtschedrin” on the album cover) and Respighi are performed by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under its chief conductor Mariss Jansons. He sadly died only a few weeks ago, in December 2019, at the age of seventy-six. Jansons and his Bavarian orchestra are more noted for their performances of core central European Romantic music, notably Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms et al. than they are for Shchedrin and Respighi. Nonetheless, the performers demonstrates dazzling form in these marvellous orchestral showpieces.

I interviewed the Moscow-born composer Shchedrin in 2014 at his apartment at Munich, where he now resides. A few days later I was to report from a performance of his Carmen Suite played by the Manchester Camerata under Gábor Takács-Nagy at Albert Hall, Manchester. In anticipation of attending the Carmen Suite concert, I asked Shchedrin about the remarkable success of the work both as a ballet and a standalone concert score. Not surprisingly, he did not want to be remembered only for Carmen Suite, his most performed work, yet quickly acknowledged how extremely advantageous it had been for him.

After Bizet’s death, his friend Ernest Guiraud prepared two suites of orchestral music drawn from the opera Carmen. Both suites closely follow Bizet’s original orchestration. This disc contains the Carmen Suite from 1967, a ballet score which Shchedrin transcribed from excerpts of Bizet’s music for his wife Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015), prima ballerina assoluta at the Moscow Bolshoi. (Plisetskaya had previously unsuccessfully asked both Shostakovich and Khachaturian for a ballet score from Bizet’s Carmen.) Shchedrin’s one-act ballet was created by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, and the first performance was given in April 1967 at Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. Plisetskaya danced it some three hundred and fifty times up to the age of sixty-five. Initially, the Soviet Authorities banned the ballet because of the ‘disrespectful’ way Bizet’s music was represented and the sexualization of the title role. Only after Shostakovich’s intervention did the ballet gradually begin to achieve a place in the repertoire.

Shchedrin’s remarkable scoring is for a large body of strings and a broad array of forty-seven percussion instruments in groups of five timpani and four percussion. With the focus naturally concentrated on dance, Shchedrin’s ballet is divided into thirteen sections. It not only uses music from the opera but also material from Bizet’s L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2 and his opera La jolie fille de Perth.

It might seem at first a strange concoction, prepared by a Russian composer using music from a French composer’s Spanish-themed opera, yet it works exceptionally well. Absorbing from the opening bar to the last, the playing of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has an impressive freshness, energy and vibrant colouration. Shchedrin seems to underline the Spanish flavour of the music as seen through Frenchman Bizet’s eyes. Nevertheless, it is possible to hear what some consider to be music of a Russian flavour at both the opening and close of the work: the conspicuous chiming of bells, marked by an ominous undertow, is a distinctive Russian trait. Without doubt the percussion sections excel, producing a substantial, bright and clear sound. The string section is on top form, too. My particular favourites are the fifth section, Carmen’s Entrance and Habanera. It markedly portrays the flaming sensuality of the Gypsy temptresses. Also striking is section nine, the Torero. It depicts the remarkable swagger of toreador Escamillo, the hero of the bullring. This captivating recording of the Carmen Suite rubs shoulders with my previous first-choice recommendation by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Gennady Rozhdestvensky from 1967 on Melodiya (c/w The Little Humpbacked Horse - ballet suite).

Bologna-born Respighi’s compositional fame rests mainly on his ‘Roman Triptych’ of orchestral tone poems in which he interpreted different facets of Rome: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. Performed here is the second of these, the symphonic poem Pines of Rome which Respighi completed in 1924. The composer provided a prose description to accompany each of the four movements. In December 1924, Bernardino Molinari conducted the Augusteo Orchestra (now the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia) in the premičre at Rome.

Opening the score, The Pines of the Villa Borghese represents excitable and energetic children at play in the pine groves, in effect a scene of everyday Roman life. Here I admire the exhilarating rhythms and pointed dissonances which convey a sense of near-chaos. A feeling of shadows and mystery inhabit The Pines near a Catacomb, a section in which Jansons produces a convincing and gradually increasing sense of awe. Strongly impressionist in disposition, The Pines of the Gianicolo successfully evokes here a nocturnal scene of warm summer evenings. The fourth and final section, The Pines of the Appian Way, builds to a thunderous climax which feels dignified, with a real sense of grandeur. Jansons is in impressive form yet he does not quite displace my primary recommendation, the exciting 1960 account by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and Antal Doráti on Mercury Living Presence (c/w The Birds, Brazilian Impressions and The Fountains of Rome).

These live Bayerischer Rundfunk recordings from Munich (the Shchedrin from Philharmonie and the Respighi from Herkulessaal) have satisfying sound quality, and the audience applause has been kept in. Susanne Schmerda and Jörg Handstein provide the informative booklet essays.

Michael Cookson

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