SHCHEDRIN: Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion (1967). Russian Photographs (1994). Velicanie (Glorification) (1995)
Kremlin Chamber Orch/Misha Rachlevsky, cond.
CLAVES 3369 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:29

Rodion Shchedrin remains an active major figure on the Russian scene. This CD combines one of his best-known works with music written during the last decade, which here receive their premiere recordings. Shchedrin first gained international recognition in 1967 for his Carmen Suite written to star his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Arranged solely for percussion and strings, this remains an audience favorite as an orchestral piece, an incredibly imaginative treatment of Bizet's music (the Toreador Song" tune, so well-known, isn't even played in Shchedrin's arrangement—the listener adds it to the accompaniment). The premiere was not well received. One well-known composer said, "This is blasphemy! Just think what the French will say. Can you imagine what we would think if they would dare to make a ballet out of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov!" The ballet was banned after just one performance because of the "sexual depiction of the main character"—and, indeed, one can imagine how sensuous the exotic Plisetskaya would have made it. However, Shostakovich loved the work, went to the Ministry of Culture and used his considerable influence to gain government acceptance, calling the score "a joyful celebration of ballet, and beyond that a major success in Soviet music." It's interesting that Plisetskaya initially approached Shostakovich to write a Carmen ballet. He declined, saying "there is no way to do it better than Bizet" after which she asked her husband to write it. The first recording, on Melodiya, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky was an instant hit with collectors, followed in 1969 by an RCA recording with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston "Pops." There have been a number of recordings since, but this latest one with Misha Rachlevsky conducting is among the best and has been superbly recorded with every bit of the scintilating percussion vividly captured.

Russian Photographs composed in 1994 has four movements: The Ancient Town of Aeksin, Cockroaches throughout Moscow (Music in D Major), Stalin-Cocktail, Evening Bells), which the composer called "snapshots of Russian life." Lots of grating strings throughout, with a semi-hoedown in Cockroaches, a lugubrious Stalin-Cocktail at the end of which the orchestra shouts, and Evening Bells which has no bells. More grating, dissonant strings are heard in Valicanie, composed in 1995, which depicts an ancient Russin folk song in which those who are praised for their accomplishments soon afterwards are disgraced.

As mentioned above, sonic quality is exceptionally fine, and the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra, which Rachlevsky founded in 1991, is a virtuoso-ensemble.

R.E.B. (July 2003)