Claves CD 50-9625
This disc, from the Swiss label Claves, sees it turning its hand to a series of varied orchestral works, some composed originally for these forces, others arrangements made by the conductor Nikolai Kalinin. Although some of the pieces are pretty light in character, it is by no means the novelty disc that the uninitiated might imagine. There is quite a wide range of compositional styles on offer here, from the unashamedly romantic (Gorodovskaya) through the epic/heroic twentieth century Russian school music of Svetlanov to the spikier, more modern inspirations of Shchedrin. That said it rarely plumbs the emotional depths achieved by at least the Daetwyler pieces on the ostensibly even more improbable Naxos Alphorn disc of last year.
The first three tracks are all quite short, with Vera Gorodovskaya's lush Concert fantasy sandwiched between the more folksy works by Kulikov and Khrennikov. The latter pieces both feature melodies I am sure you will recognise, even if you were previously unable to name them, and the entertainment factor ranks highly here. Gorodovskaya was actually a member of this orchestra in the 1940s and, like Kulikov's of 1955, her piece was conceived for balalaika orchestra. Rodion Shchedrin is perhaps the best known of the composer's featured here and his Chamber Suite of 1961 is more ambitious than what has gone before it. Originally constructed for 20 violins, harp, accordion and two double basses, it has translated well into this version. The Prelude starts hauntingly, before developing into a romantic, if fairly spare melody, hardly preparing us for the tense, agitated Intermezzo that follows it. The Amoroso is at the heart of the piece and sounds like it too, a beatific meditation for the balalaikas before the Cadenza and Fugue makes its lurching, scurrying entrance, recalling the spikiness of the Intermezzo. Stravinsky certainly never seems far away in the faster sections of this suite! The Finale revisits the Prelude and ends the work on a less frenetic note. All in all, the Suite commands the attention throughout, at the same time as adding some artistic muscle to the disc, while never veering too far from the orchestra's underlying strengths.
Best of all is, I think, left until last. Evgeny Svetlanov is most well known in the West as a conductor of some prowess but here he shows his mastery of composition with the marvellous Red Snowball. It begins in a rather low-key manner, with melancholic accordion playing solo for nearly a minute and a half. The balalaikas then enter with a yearning accompaniment. At four and a half minutes in, the full orchestra kicks in, full of energetic brass and string work, echoes of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich now running up against the accordion. This section is incredibly powerful and later invokes the Dies Irae, before the tumult subsides to leave the more intimate instruments centre stage again. The winds then briefly introduce a folk setting which is soon taken up with gusto by the balalaikas before quietude returns. From about eleven minutes there is a more abstract/impressionistic section which could almost have come from Tapiola in its evocation of the elements. This fades away to be replaced by a quite threatening martial theme with prominent timpani and strings leading us back into a moving vocal finale, beautifully sung by Anna Litvinenko, announced briefly by the return of the balalaikas. Despite its rather piecemeal approach, this track distils the greatest emotions on the disc and as such is perhaps the one I am most likely to give repeated hearings to.
This is not a disc I could listen to everyday but I certainly found it an interesting and stimulating recording and by no means as specialist as one might imagine. The performances are superb and it is easy to understand the many plaudits (including a Penguin Rosette) that the orchestra has received in the past.
Neil Horner, Musicweb, June 2003