WORKS: The Enchanted Wanderer; The Little Humpbacked Horse – four fragments; Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 (Naughty Limericks)
PERFORMER: Sergei Aleksashkin, Evgeny Akimov, Kristina Kapustinskaya; Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0504 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Though it embraces three works and spans nearly half a century of Rodion Shchedrin’s output, the bulk of this welcome new release is devoted to the composer’s fourth opera, The Enchanted Wanderer. Premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2002, this ‘opera for the concert stage’ – mainly slow and meditative, and more about narrative than drama – has found natural advocates at the Mariinsky, for Valery Gergiev and his forces instinctively feel how deeply rooted it is in Russian tradition.
Dealing in some places in the common currency of Russian music – grumbling bassoons, for example, at moments of grotesquerie – it is also distinctively the work of the 77-year-old Shchedrin, conjuring up a mystical atmosphere as befits its source in a novella by Leskov. Best known to music-lovers from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Leskov here tells the complicated story of a beautiful, fatalistic gypsy Grusha, and the itinerant monk Ivan, who as a youth twice won and lost her love.
The 100-minute work is scored for orchestra including balalaika and gusli, and veiled bells open and close the piece. The Mariinsky’s stalwart bass Sergey Aleksashkin is sonorous in the title part, alongside the high tenor Evgeny Akimov in several roles and the dusky-voiced mezzo Kristina Kapustinskaya as the haunting Grusha. Even on a recording she has subtle histrionic magnetism to match her vocal security, and her hymn to the setting sun is one of the score’s most memorable inspirations.
Gergiev, who has been championing Shchedrin’s music of late, also revels in the brilliant orchestration of the composer’s first ballet, The Little Humpbacked Horse (1955), which with its folk-inspired round dances sounds like a mid-century Petrushka. The 1963 Concerto for Orchestra, Naughty Limericks, rounds things off in witty and virtuosic style. Will Gergiev now give us one of Shchedrin’s bigger operas – Dead Souls or Lolita? John Allison