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ClassicsOnline Home » SHCHEDRIN, R.K.: Concertos for Orchestra Nos. 4 and 5 / Khrustal'niye gusli (Bournemouth Symphony, Karabits)
The distinguished Russian composer, pianist and teacher Rodion Shchedrin writes: “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, 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 CD, it has found it own nostalgic echo.” All three works are world première recordings.
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin (b. 1932): Concerto for Orchestra No. 4 ‘Khorovody’
(Roundelays) • Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 ‘Four Russian Songs’ • Kristallene Gusli
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 it own nostalgic echo.
The Concerto for Orchestra No. 4 ‘Khorovody’ (Roundelays), (1989) draws on genres of our old national Slav celebrations, when young men and women still sang and danced round-dances on Russian soil, delighting one another in the intricate lacework of rhythmic movement, flirting, playing, competing between themselves in boisterousness, daring, and gracefulness. There are no authentic Russian melodies in the concerto—it is of my own personal imagining ‘on a theme’, my fantasy, my stylization, and my innocent vision.
The Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 ‘Four Russian Songs’ (1998) was also written in the same way, but there I used one authentic and well-known Russian folksong, which appears as a third theme in the exposition. Rimsky-Korsakov included it in his famous collection A Hundred Russian Folk Songs. The text of the song includes the line ‘Glory to God on this earth’. During the Soviet period Rimsky-Korsakov’s collection was republished under the same title a number of times, but if one counted the songs, there would be only 99 of them, because this one was omitted from the Soviet
Kristallene Gusli (Crystal Psaltery) (1999) was written for the jubilee of the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whom I counted among my friends. Maybe
there are echoes of his ‘watercolour’ compositional aesthetics to be heard here.
I will remember working with Kirill Karabits for a long time. This young musician is generously endowed with natural talent as a conductor. His clear, incisive and expressive gestures make it much easier for players and listeners alike to accept music that is unfamiliar. His instinctive sense for the best choices of tempo and grasp of the whole dramatic structure are important elements in his talent. I believe not only in his present success, but also in the great future that lies before him.
As all the works recorded were world première recordings, we had absolutely no points of reference and material to listen to beforehand. I had a long telephone conversation with Rodion several days before we started and he mentioned several things that were especially important to him. One of them was the idea of the troika (Russian horse-drawn vehicle) which, as it moves through different landscapes, enables the listener to become an observer of what may be met on the way. The first rehearsal started—and I felt like a real ambassador by introducing his music to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
The next morning Rodion and his wife Maya came and I felt that we were getting used to Rodion’s style and logic. His presence and his exchanges with the musicians engendered a lot of enthusiasm. We moved very quickly through the recording sessions, as it were, in “one breath”.
All the three pieces are extremely inventive. The Fourth Concerto is a piece with very unusual orchestral colours—slow sections led by recorder combined with the ostinato figure that goes through the whole composition. In the Fifth Concerto one can clearly feel like an observer in a troika that is moving through the different landscapes of Russia. I especially enjoyed the gypsy scene. Kristallene Gusli is a very impressionistic composition that sounds like Japanese wind-chimes.
This has been a fantastic experience for all of us.
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin studied at the Moscow Choir School and the Moscow Conservatory (1950–55), where his teachers were Yuri Shaporin
(composition) and Yakov Fliyer (piano). In 1958 he married Maya Plisetskaya, prima ballerina of the Bolshoy Ballet, and it was with a ballet, Carmen Suite (1967), that he established his name. From 1973 to 1990 he was president of the Composers’ Union of the Russian Federation, succeeding Shostakovich. His
career has combined composing, playing and teaching. He has written for all genres, his inspiration often arising from the heritage of Russian literature, poetry
and drama, as reflected in the operas Dead Souls (1976), after Gogol, and Lolita (1992), drawn from Nabokov’s novel, and the ballets Anna Karenina (1971) and The Lady with a Lapdog (1985), after Tolstoy and Chekhov respectively. He has developed his concept of music and theatre in The Enchanted Wanderer (2001–2), an opera for the concert stage, and a Russian choral opera, Boyarina Morozova (2006). His orchestral music
includes three symphonies, five concertos for orchestra, five for piano, as well as concertos for violin (1994), cello (2001) and trumpet (1993). Among his choral
works are The Sealed Angel (1988). Significant in the development of Shchedrin’s voice as a composer has been the legacy of Russian folk-music, Russian art music of the nineteenth century, in particular Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov, and also Shostakovich.
Concerto for Orchestra No. 4 ‘Khorovody’ was composed in 1989, to a commission from Suntory Ltd and was first performed on 2 November that year in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Naohira Totsuka. It is scored for a large orchestra including a substantial array of
percussion instruments, as well as an alto recorder whose distinctive timbre brings a pastoral, open-air quality to the music. Like all Shchedrin’s concertos for orchestra, the work is cast in a single extended movement.
The title Khorovody may be translated as Roundelays or Round Dances, a Khorovod being a traditional dance of Slavic countries, often with singing, that dates back to pagan times when its circular form was probably associated with sun worship and ritual spring ceremonies. Other Russian composers have incorporated the dance in their music; for instance, Stravinsky’s Khorovod of the Princesses in The Firebird. The spirit of folk-dance and song imbues the concerto which opens with a master-stroke of aural imagination as the recorder plays a simple folk-songlike melodic fragment, accompanied by two flutes blowing into the mouthpieces of their instruments to create an eerie effect like wind whistling through grasses. These evocative sounds are interrupted momentarily by the harpsichord and violins playing a repeated four-note ostinato figure, which once permanently set in motion establishes the work’s momentum and is woven into a sophisticated, ever changing kaleidoscope of colours, instrumental combinations and melodic variations. True to the
concept of a concerto for orchestra, different instruments and sections come to the fore, then fade into the background; thus in the opening paragraphs the
recorder’s melody is taken up by clarinet, cor anglais, and horn combined with tubular bells. Later an exultant, virtuosic solo for high piccolo trumpet completes the first part of the work.
Shchedrin now brings contrast and a chamber orchestra quality to the music, as a new dance, in triple time, is softly intoned by two flutes accompanied by
tambourine, with a saltando (bouncing bowing) melodic fragment on the violins. Gradually the dance becomes more mesmeric, with screeching howls on violins, playing harmonics and sul ponticello (near the bridge), as more instruments take the limelight, the bassoons and horns for instance. A host of brilliant orchestral sonorities, such as strings sliding between notes, adds to the swirling vibrancy of the textures.
Following the entry of the trombones and tuba the tension increases and the music takes on an increasingly manic guise with the next dance emerging on full
orchestra. It has a distinctly uneasy character and continues to build in power and energy, until in a superb compositional stroke, Shchedrin sweeps this mood aside as a blazing A major tonality is reached and the orchestra hammers out the dance triumphantly in alternating bars of duple and triple time.
At its climax the music cuts out cinematically to usher the return of the ostinato and the recorder melody; a lighter palette prevails with the violins adding serene counterpoint of exquisite beauty. In time everything comes full circle with the return of the opening, before the work ends with an upward flourish on the whole orchestra.
Of his Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 ‘Four Russian Songs’, a BBC Proms commission, Shchedrin commented, ‘It’s not a work in black and white, but filled with vibrant colours; works for Prom audiences have to be.’ It is scored for marginally smaller forces than its predecessor, but still with plenty of percussion, and received its première by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by its dedicatee, Dmitri Sitkovetsky on 7 August 1989. Shchedrin has likened the work 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 characteristic jingles or sleigh bells of the troika weave in and out of the texture. All but one of the songs are Shchedrin’s own inventions, but so permeated with the spirit of Russian folk-song that they may be regarded as a ‘kind of free re-creation’. Of their character he explains, ‘one derives from the mournful, monotone songs that two or three centuries ago, groups of blind itinerants sang to let horses and people know that they were there. Another is like the sad laments sung when Russia was under the yoke of the Tartars. The third (the authentic one) derives
from the festive chorus of the Orthodox church at Easter, and the fourth type of material comes from old Russian gypsy songs’.
The work may be divided into six sections. At the beginning a repeated pulse creates a sense of movement, over which wisps of a folk-tune materialise on the
woodwind. From the hushed depths of the orchestra, a chugging bass line emerges on the second bassoon, pizzicato cellos and basses accompanied by sleigh bells.
Above this a solo trumpet plays into a cup mute ‘as if from afar’ evoking the sounds of old folk instruments. The second section heralds the next song, a flowing outpouring of noble melody on the violas. Pizzicato violins and violas imitating the sound of the balalaika start the third section; it is slower, and of a capricious character with the music ebbing and flowing abruptly. Short, wild solos for trombone and trumpets ending with a flurry of improvised notes scurry by, before an impassioned string passage leads to a climax.
With the beginning of the fourth section, the half way point in the work is reached, and a new pulse in triple time is created by timpani, harp and piano as the
violas again lead the way with their lilting song. The melodic thread is taken up by a solo trumpet, leading to a decisive fortissimo passage. Seamlessly the fifth section arrives with a joyous song on the wind instruments, quickly taken up by the majority of the orchestra in rhythmic unison, the texture pitted by
tattoos and fanfares on trumpets and trombones. The music cuts out to leave a carillon of bells; then as the other instruments re-join, it swells to a massive
dissonant climax with thrilling tintinnabulations swamping the air. As the first song returns, the sixth section begins, in which some, but not all, of the ideas
encountered before are recalled and trombones and tuba have a last sonorous moment of glory. Seemingly the music is about to peter away; instead, in a final inspired compositional twist, it accelerates to an explosive coda.
Kristallene Gusli, composed in 1994, was first performed that year on 21 November by the Moscow State Orchestra, conducted by Igor Golovchin. The
scoring here is for a smaller orchestra than either of the concertos, including just two percussion instruments. Its sound world is also totally different, the dedication to Shchedrin’s friend and near contemporary, the Japanese composer Toro Takemitsu (1930–1996) offering a clue to its character. Like many works by the Japanese master it has a contemplative quality and is a study in sonorities. Its title too is instructive, for the music has a crystalline, bright shining quality, and evokes the gusli, the ancient Russian psaltery or hand-held harp, but heard through the ears of a twentieth-century composer.
Shchedrin uses a host of string effects to create the quality of stasis—pizzicato and bowed harmonics, col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), ricochet bowing and notes played behind the bridge of the instrument. Initially the strings (divided into three parts) dominate the texture, but gradually long-held wind chords are added, as are muted brass. The music rises to just a single climax about two-thirds of the way through, at which point the pianist is instructed to drop a wooden pencil or ruler onto the strings of the instrument. It is only after this that the percussion instruments are added to the texture and a further sonority to note is a repeated figure for the horns who are instructed to play parlando (as if speaking). Once again the work reveals Shchedrin as a master of orchestral sonority.
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