Shchedrin: Carmen Suite (CD review)

Also, Concertos for Orchestra Nos. 1 & 2. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. DG 289 471 136-2.

Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) mostly weathered the storms of Soviet musical repression in the Fifties and Sixties, only to find favor in the latter stages of the Communist regime and, of course, today hailed as one of Russia's leading composers. The Soviet government initially banned Shchedrin's 1967 Carmen Suite from on the grounds that it was "an insult to Bizet's masterpiece and for its sexual treatment of the character of Carmen."  Thanks to the intervention of Shchedrin's friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, it became accepted.

The Carmen Suite, in thirteen short movements, as you know owes its melodies and inspiration to Bizet, largely from the operas Carmen and La Jolie Fille de Perth and from Arlesienne. The big switch is that Shchedrin arranged the Suite for a small string orchestra, timpani, and four groups of percussion. The result is vibrant and rousing, jazzy in its way, yet intimate, too.

Conductor Mikhail Pletnev, members of the Russian National Orchestra, and the DG engineers manage to convey the piece in a clean, articulate, showstopping manner, with clean, vivid sound. The percussion, especially, ring out loud and clear. Although the sound is not quite in the demonstration class for absolute depth or transparency, it's close and should not displease the music lover or audiophile.

The two accompanying works, the Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, subtitled "Naughty Limericks" and "The Chimes," couldn't be more different from one another. "Naughty Limericks," 1963, is a purely orchestral version of a folk tune, which when sung with assorted lyrics could be highly biting and satiric. The music is playful and immediately enjoyable.

"The Chimes," 1968, on the other hand, is arranged for a huge percussion section featuring eighteen tubular bells, five "Russian" bells, and various sleighbells. Yet it's not what you might expect, instead sounding like typically modern, mid-to-late twentieth century experimental music. In this case, the booklet note tells us the percussion "forms the core of various layers of sound, which move across one another in part according to the chance rhythms of aleatory principles, and whose scalic material partly derives from Slavonic liturgical chant and partly from serial note-row procedures." It's the kind of stuff that delights composers and music critics and is generally ignored by the public. "The Chimes" does, at the very least, make a fascinating contrast to the rest of the more traditional music on the disc.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa