Rodion Shchedrin At 70 – Anniversary Concert

Photograph of Rodion Shchedrin (Schott)

Polyphonic Notebook (selection of six Preludes)
Collateral Parts
Basso Ostinato
Sonata for cello and piano [UK premiere]
Three Shepherds
Menuhin-Sonata [UK premiere]
Three Merry Pieces

Rodion Shchedrin (piano)
Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violin)
Alexander Ivashkin (cello)
Sarah O’Flynn (flute)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
Colin Lawson (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 June, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Among the most prolific of post-war Soviet/Russian composers, Rodion Shchedrin has enjoyed only a limited profile in the UK. His apparent success, both artistic and professional, under the Soviet system has latterly attracted accusations of ’playing safe’ and ’selling out’. Yet this ignores Shchedrin’s independence from officialdom (for over a decade he chaired the Shostakovich-founded Russian Federation of the Union of Composers) and the diverse nature of his output – freely eclectic to a degree once frowned-upon, but now fashionable in the West.

As numerous recordings demonstrate, he is a first-rate pianist too. The present recital demonstrated his prowess in no uncertain terms. The six preludes selected from Polyphonic Notebook (1972) are technical studies and abstract character pieces in one – pithy, often-ironic miniatures whose part-writing is elegant and entertainingly instructive. Two lengthier piano pieces date from 1961: Collateral Parts, a synthesis of Russian folk music with a Hindemithian piano idiom; and Basso Ostinato, whose rhythmic drive takes in ’references’ to Prokofiev and Gershwin on its exhilarating course.

The composer played with assurance, then returned with Alexander Ivashkin for the Cello Sonata (1996). This substantial (32-minute) work falls into three interestingly contrasted movements. The opening ’Moderato’ places the instruments in sustained melodic dialogue, its understatement continuing in an acerbic ’Allegretto’, with frequent staccato writing, before the closing ’Sostenuto assai’ brings the two musical types into expressive if ambivalent accord. Absorbing and unsettling, the sonata was played with Ivashkin’s customary expressive intensity.

Both main works in the second half were shorter – but outstayed their welcome by a greater margin. In the pastoral evocation of Three Shepherds (1988), this was owing to the lyrical but emotionally limited interplay of flute, oboe and clarinet – their emergence and return offstage framing unwinding melodic lines that palled well before the close, despite the excellent playing. In the case of the Menuhin-Sonata (1999), the sustained elegy impeded any discernible progress towards a cathartic dénouement. Perhaps this was in part due to Dmitry Sitkovetsky, whose commitment precluded lightness or contrast of touch – giving an unrelieved uniformity to an already intense score.

There was no such problem with Three Merry Pieces (1981/97) which followed. ’Conversations’ and ’Let’s play an Opera by Rossini’ are witty re-workings from his Album for Youth, while ’Humoresque’ transforms a 1957 piano piece into a very Russian-sounding singalong. Messrs Ivashkin, Sitkovetsky and Shchedrin fully entered into their spirit, with the latter two returning for a flamboyant encore, Imitating Albéniz – the composer in heart-on-sleeve (or is that tongue-in-cheek?) mood.

With such major recent works as a Fifth Piano Concerto and Third Symphony to his name, and an evening-length concert work scheduled for the New York Philharmonic next season, Shchedrin is clearly in full flight. Maybe British audiences will have a chance to hear some of these works too?

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