On October 31, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall with a program of Strauss, Shostakovich, and a colorful and unusual Russian ballet suite by the greatest living artistic successor of Shostakovich—Rodion Shchedrin. Here—including the orchestra's recording of fragments from the work—Jack Sullivan introduces the work and its creator.
Rodion Shchedrin is one of the last living composers in a Russian lineage stretching back to Dmitri Shostakovich. As Shostakovich's successor in the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation, he faced the same Soviet censorship and repression as his older colleague. Following the fall of the USSR, he managed to achieve wider renown, but with the exception of scattered events—most recently, an 80th birthday performance by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera—his music has been performed mainly in Europe.
Shchedrin has an extensive symphonic, ballet, instrumental, and operatic catalog. He is known for combining his own brand of modernism with Russian folklore and literature, but his experiments with vernacular music extend beyond national boundaries: The smoldering Piano Concerto No. 2 unites serialism and jazz; À la Albéniz plays saucily with Spanish modes and rhythms.
Commentators tend to lump his work with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but he has an original style that has undergone continual metamorphosis. In the words of pianist Marina Lomazov, "the voice of Shchedrin is a combination of his heritage and musical experiences and his own vision: clever, precise, folksy, often humorous, full of prickly dissonance, but suffused with warmth, passion, and tenderness."
The work that propelled Shchedrin to stardom was the ballet The Little Hunchbacked Horse, which was an immediate favorite with the Soviet public when premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre in 1960. It also has special personal significance for the composer: This ballet brought Shchedrin together with his future wife, renowned ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who created the role of the Tsar-Girl and appeared in the 1961 Soviet film version of the ballet.
The Little Hunchbacked Horse exists as a ballet, a concert suite, and a piano suite (Shchedrin has a double career as a composer and concert pianist). It's a coming-of-age story that depicts the adventures of a young boy, Ivan the Fool, who is led on a fantastical journey by a hunchbacked horse and a magic feather. Along the way, he encounters a silver mountain, a mystical ring in the sea, several firebirds, and a beautiful Tsar-Girl. Shchedrin was not the only composer to set this story: At least six versions have appeared since 1864.
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform the Introduction and Duettino of Duettino of Ivan and Tsar-Girl from Rodion Shchedrin's The Little Hunchbacked Horse.
This is a lively, accessible work, uniting a Russian sense of fantasy with bizarre humor and mischievous irony. (The scenario includes such descriptions as "In the royal chambers, the Wet Nurses are feeding the Tsar.") Shchedrin's harmonic idiom includes dissonance and wholetone scales, plus a Mussorgksian sense of the grotesque. But unlike his modernist works, this piece is tonal and tuneful.
Beginning with a sensuous introduction, the excerpts presented here have a wide range of sensibilities and effects. The Gypsy Dance is a virtuoso workout for the orchestra, an extravaganza of color with a touch of the sinister. The delicately scored Duettino of Ivan and Tsar-Girl has a childlike innocence, with a repeating motif for winds that sounds a bit like Copland, though the harp and celesta colors are unmistakably Russian. The finale features a simple round for woodwinds full of fairytale ambiance followed by an ecstatic quadrille.
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform The Gypsy Dance and Maiden's Round Dance and Quadrille from Rodion Shchedrin's The Little Hunchbacked Horse.
Related: October 31, Mariinsky Orchestra