's Carmen Suite has become one of his best traveled pieces of music, with his First Concerto for Orchestra, Ozornïye chastoshki (roughly translated as Naughty Limericks) attaining considerable popularity in his native Russia (he was born in Moscow in 1932).
The Carmen Suite was written, for performance as a ballet, in 1967 and premièred in the same year, by the Bolshoi company, to choreography by Alberto Alonso, principal ballet-master of the National Ballet of Cuba (remember the grim old days of socialist solidarity?). It reached the States in 1974, when the Bolshoi came to the Met. The scoring, for strings and a large body of percussion requiring five players, is so successful that it is easy to forget that you are not listening to a full symphony orchestra; the writing for percussion is particularly imaginative. What Shchedrin has done is to take Bizet's thematic material and expand its possibilities, realising sonorities implicit in the music, adding atmosphere, effect, drama - to an original that, one must admit, is already fairly atmospheric, effective and dramatic. He is generally fairly respectful towards Bizet's material: he does not recompose it, push the music in directions it wasn't intended to go, undermine the harmony or otherhow play silly buggers with it - indeed, he must have realised that he wouldn't have got away with abusing such well-loved music. And, in the event, all your favorite tunes are here to enjoy, dished up in new colors and tastes.
Ozornïye chastoshki - so called because it takes its thematic material from the chatushka, a form of popular song - dates from 1963. It's a bright, jazzy, good-natured piece of writing, amiably showing off Shchedrin's orchestral technique, animated by foot-tapping rhythms that rarely let up in their rattling pace. If it were a little longer (there's eight-and-a-half minutes of it), it might overstay its welcome, but Shchedrin's teasing is perfectly judged and the music comes to an abrupt halt - with one last laugh up Shchedrin's sleeve.
Theodor Kuchar's recent series of Lyatoshinsky Symphonies on Marco Polo revealed a reliable conductor, but a simultaneous release of the Lyatoshinsky Third Symphony under Mravinsky pointed out how much more Kuchar could have found in the score. These Shchedrin performances strike as rather more successful: there's plenty of bounce and energy on both scores, both the Carmen Suite and Ozornïye chastoshki zipping along on the way. And at Naxos' give-away price this is most definitely an issue to investigate. Nearly an hour of damn good fun; recommended.
Copyright © 1996/1998, Martin Anderson