Rodion Shchedrin was born in Moscow in 1932. His father was a composer and teacher at the Conservatory there. For more than ten years Shchedrin served as successor to the founder of the Union of Composers of the Russian Foundation, Shostakovich, at the latter's request. A virtuoso pianist, like Shostakovich, Shchedrin wrote 24 preludes and fugues for the instrument. He has also written half a dozen operas, ballets, much orchestral music – especially in concerto and concertante form – as well as a small amount of chamber music, of which this highly pleasing CD from Ars Musici is a representative collection.
Shchedrin's early music is largely tonal, although latterly he has used both aleatoric and serial techniques. (Russian) literature, folklore and dance are never far from his musical center (he married the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in 1958). For all his attention to color, mood and music's often undiscussed yet universally acknowledged powers to move the listener emotionally, there is also a wickedly humorous vein in much of Shchedrin's output. Despite being championed by prominent musicians, notably the cellists Rostropovich and Raphael Wallfish, Shchedrin's music lacks the following it deserves… although there are several dozen CDs partially or entirely devoted to it, a dozen of these are recordings of the one piece by which he is best known, his "Carmen-Suite" after Bizet.
This CD featuring violinist Dimitri Sitkovetsky, cellist David Grigorian and both Ludmila Lissovaja and Shchedrin as pianists is particularly welcome. The playing of all four is in turns sensitive, astute, delicate, penetrating and at all times wholly persuasive. Persuasive that you are listening to music of weight and import. That it is also music of beauty, elegance and refinement without a hint of preciousness is evident from the outset. Only In the Style of Albéniz is already recorded, although a CD on Nimbus (5831) by Wallfisch and the composer can also be recommended as offering similar repertoire.
Above all, these musicians convey the concentration of Shchedrin without allowing his austerity (not the austerity of Schnittke, still less of Shostakovich) to suggest anything more than musical focus. It's music as pure music. The first two pieces, the Menuhin-Sonata for violin and piano and the "Echo" sonata for violin solo, Opus 69, occupy half the generous CD at over 40 minutes together. The booklet offers little explanation about the homages paid – to Bach (in the "Echo" sonata), Albeniz and Menuhin. It's clear, though, that these are respectful gatherings of the style of those (and perhaps other) figures, not cold emulations. For a key aspect of Shchedrin's tonal and melodic impetus and strength is its distillation and gentle refinement towards essences and minima, as is the music of Feldman. The musicians here have understood that very well and communicate it to us in most satisfactory and indeed exciting ways. Nothing is overdone; there is still as much lyricism and presence as needed to make listening a pleasure; the instruments and their sounds are paramount. Yet not for their own sake: the string players in particular avoid any danger that the immediacy of their articulation has significance beyond the music as written – even in the most intense moments of the angular Sonata for cello and piano.
There is enough variety in each of the four pieces on this CD, and indeed within each of them, to provide a truly satisfying experience. While the music tends to unfold slowly, deliberately and with the utmost confidence, it never stagnates. At the same time, it's densely enough written (where density is a positive) not to have your mind wandering in anticipation of what comes next. And in all senses, these musicians further the specific experiences of the listeners… as though they're getting behind us and almost stealing through each movement, passage and work with us. Yet without leading. And quite openly.
The studio recording has a full, yet neither plush nor over-mellow, acoustic. Again, it concentrates our attention entirely on Shchedrin's fascinating, accomplished and highly original musical ideas and lines; though at times there is a slightly intrusive but very minor echo of the piano. The booklet could have been more forthcoming about the genesis and place in Shchedrin's repertoire of these pieces. Biographies of the musicians take pride of place instead. Nevertheless, given the prominence and unassuming excellence of those players (Sitkovetsky is the Menuhin-Sonata's dedicatee, for instance), this is music-making of the highest order. Its prime role is not the advocacy of this unduly neglected composer, though it does that superbly. It's to provide almost 80 minutes of gentle yet impressive music for soloists playing together in immaculate combination, yet somehow not submerging the scope that Shchedrin makes available for individual expression. This is a CD to buy without hesitating and listen to many times.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.