This disc is, in many ways, a follow-up to
Wallfisch’s Nimbus recording of Prokofiev and Shchedrin. That
was with the Southbank Sinfonia and was recorded in 2007 (NI
5816). It offered us the latter’s Parabola Concertante.
It’s good that the composer can now stand centre-stage because
for most of us Shchedrin’s music will be little known. He
has a vast work-list of operas, ballets, concertos, three
symphonies and several miscellaneous pieces. Chamber music
is not an especially large area of interest for him so the
works on this new Nimbus disc make especially intriguing listening.
What makes the collection especially exciting is the rarity
of having the composer accompany a world famous soloist. One
now almost certainly knows that this is how the music is meant
In his inset notes the estimable Calum MacDonald
writes about Shchedrin’s musical language and styles as follows:
“his output falls into roughly three periods: an early stage
up to the early ’60s influenced by Prokofiev, Shostakovich
and Stravinsky” and his love of Spanish music represented
by his now famous Carmen Suite. That Iberian strand
is represented here by the last two pieces on the disc. Then
came the 1960s-1980s when he “incorporated Jazz, rock styles,
and neo-classicism into an increasingly more personal idiom”.
Then came his third period “where the various influences are
more highly integrated and, in addition, drawing on childhood
memories and Russian Orthodox church music”.
Another influence mentioned elsewhere in the
notes is Shchedrin’s love of Russian folklore and folk music.
This comes to fruition in the first work on the CD ‘The ancient
melodies of Russian folk-songs’. The composer uses tunes published
in 1877 by Rimsky-Korsakov in an anthology of one hundred.
This was drawn on also by Stravinsky. In truth Shchedrin’s
approach is not one of writing variations on little modal
themes but one where the tunes are not always even discernible.
They act as a sort of catalyst to promote the mood of a brief
essay. There is gloominess about each which characteristically
conveys a sense of loss for an idyllic Russian past before
the Great War - the time of the old Tsarist world. There is
bitterness, melancholy and a sense of tragedy too. Even with
a vaguely witty movement like number two with its pizzicato
line answered by something approaching a canonic staccato
piano, there is a sort of cynicism and pain. The fourth movement
is really a lament and the fifth muses on a theme collected
originally by Tchaikovsky in 1871 and used in his First Quartet.
I must add that this is not, for me, a piece to which I shall
The Sonata is the main work on the disc. It
was, like the ‘Parabola Concertante’ mentioned above. There’s
also a Cello
Concerto of 1994 written for and first performed by his
great friend the late Mstislav Rostropovich. The Sonata falls
into three unconventional movements and is, in my view, a
stunning work. Certainly, as Calum McDonald admits, right
from the start you feel the presence of Shostakovich. Shchedrin
took over the chairmanship of the Russian Union of Composers
after Shostakovich’s death. There is something very atmospheric
about the dry drumming percussiveness of the outer movements.
Also memorable is the almost ridiculous grotesquerie of the
middle movement marked ‘Moderato’ but ‘Capriccioso’ would
have been a good epithet. The influence of Schnittke may be
detected in this work - or was it the other way about – together
with a folk-like tune with “a nagging dotted rhythm”. The
music is dark and expressive but has a few lighter moments.
It ends as it were, in mid-sentence emphasizing the dramatic
nature of the material. It is not atonal, but it’s quite impossible
to pin down a key for long if at all. Bi-tonality and polytonality
are not far from the surface. This creates an uneasy tension
between the past and the present; Russian music of our time
has never been confident enough to resolve this tension.
As for the performance it is very powerful.
I am sure that all performers would admit that there is no
such thing as a perfect technique and the composer certainly
stretches the cellist’s skills. This is at times almost beyond
the possible. This is true particularly in the upper register
and even the great Raphael Wallfisch would agree.
The last pieces on the disc are both miniatures
but carry the of a strong individuality. The ‘Tango’ in the
style of Albeniz is not altogether in Albeniz’s style at all.
Indeed its somewhat aggressive nature, especially at the beginning
seems rather desperate. It’s a curiously disturbing work.
By contrast the last piece, the ’Quadrille’ is the most enjoyable
and easily accessible piece on the disc and is good fun.
The recording is first class and I must add
how much I always like Nimbus’s house style of booklet photography.
Here is sunlight cutting through a forest but in mysterious
black and white.