Shchedrin: The Left-Hander

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Shchedrin
LABELS: Mariinsky
WORKS: The Left-Hander
PERFORMER: Andrei Popov, Edward Tsanga, Vladimir Moroz, Kristina Alieva; Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0554 (CD/SACD hybrid)

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Valery Gergiev’s championship of Rodion Shchedrin has become a rare good deed in the conductor’s increasingly naughty world. Surely the most important Russian composer of the post-Shostakovich generation, Shchedrin (born 1932) has survived all his country’s political shifts by writing fine and durable music, yet it is not only domestic ideologies that threatened his fortunes. When communism collapsed, the West rushed rather to embrace the work of Alfred Schnittke and seemed ready to relegate Shchedrin to the past; but in recent years Gergiev’s persistence with the music of Shchedrin has changed the picture. And the innate theatricality of Shchedrin’s music is something that Gergiev seems to recognise, hardly surprising given the composer’s links with the lyric theatre. Married to the late, great ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (she died in May), he has composed five ballets and remains active in the operatic field: The Left-Hander, recorded at its premiere in St Petersburg two summers ago, is his sixth opera.

In a story drawn from a haunting Nikolai Leskov novella, the title character is a squint-eyed village gunsmith pressed into international service in order to prove the superiority of Russian craftsmanship: he is tasked with refashioning a life-size dancing steel flea that the English have given the tsar. Shchedrin’s scoring is inventive and colourful – folk instruments underling the Slavic nostalgia – and his vocal lines always singable. Leading the characteristically strong Mariinsky forces, Kristina Alieva entertains with her coloratura as the ornamental insect, and in the title role the lyric tenor Andrei Popov gives a touching performance of a character forced out of his comfort zone.

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John Allison