CD Stock Number: Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 136-2
Shchedrin's reemerging of the much loved tunes from Bizet's Carmen -- and few operas are so packed with great melodies -- was originally conceived as a ballet score, but has now gained some popularity as a concert piece. When I heard Shchedrin's score years ago, I was initially shocked by his seemingly cavalier exuberance in scrambling the sequence and the instrumental balances so familiar from Bizet -- and most of all by the percussion onslaught heard throughout. It struck me as a kind of cosmic gene splice between Bizet and Spike Jones.
The Carmen Suite has received several recordings, including a cheerfully hell-for-leather version by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, which I like very much. But after living for a while with Pletnev, I must award the palm to this recording. Rather than going for the easy laugh, Pletnev and his virtuoso players deliver the music with dead-pan dramatic gravity -- which makes Shchedrin's ubiquitous percussion interjections all the more startling. They also do full justice to the beauty and emotion of the score. This will certainly never replace Bizet's sublime originals, but unless you're fatally serious-minded, there is much to enjoy in Shchedrin's high-spirited romp.
The two Concertos for Orchestra also create striking impressions. Neither of these one-movement pieces is a Concerto for Orchestra in the Bartokian sense. "Naughty Limericks" lives up to its title, with a scampering pace and satirical harmonies strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich in his ironic mode, and to a lesser extent of Prokofiev. "The Chimes" is less immediately accessible than its sibling. Its deliberate pace, rhythmic complexity and darker, thicker orchestration took a few hearings before I could fully appreciate its cumulative power. At around 8 and 10 minutes respectively, both of these brilliantly composed works are well worthy of concert exposure.
The Russian National Orchestra is a young (post-Perestroika) ensemble that was originally formed by recruiting the best musicians from orchestras all over Russia. It is clearly a world-class orchestra, and the players give their considerable all in these performances. Mikhail Pletnev was the founding conductor of the RNO. Prior to taking up the baton he was a gold medalist in the prestigious Tchaikowsky piano competition. I heard recently that he is resigning his conducting post to resume his career as a pianist. This news saddens me; in just a few years Pletnev has emerged as a premier interpreters of the Russian repertoire, along with his countrymen Yuri Temirkanov and Valery Gergiev. And great conductors, I fear, are even more rare than great pianists.
Deutsche Grammophon gives us excellent engineering, better than their usual standard for the last few years. Inner orchestral voices emerge effortlessly, there is a creditable sense of hall ambience, and the dynamic range is untypically wide. At the least, this CD played loud will give your system a challenging workout. More importantly, the music is worth your attention.