Last week in Verbier I was lucky enough to run into Rodion Shchedrin and Maya Plisetskaya. The couple have been at the forefront of their arts in Russia since the 1960s: she was possibly the greatest ballerina of her day (I suspect she could have knocked Fonteyn flat had she wished to) and he remains among the most prolific and dazzling of contemporary Russian composers. Therefore it's perhaps ironic that his most famous work - one that is played somewhere in the world almost every day - is his Carmen Suite, created especially for Maya and based on Bizet.
It's almost a pity, because some of his other works are simply astonishing. I am particularly enthralled by the Piano Concerto No.2 and recommend this recording of Marc-Andre Hamelin playing it, along with Shostakovich's two.
I have a short interview with Shchedrin in the new issue of BBC Music Magazine, a special 'Russian' edition. It's the 'Music That Changed Me' back page feature, in which he also reveals some music that changed his great friend Shostakovich. The article is necessarily much shorter than the interview, so here is an extract of Maya dancing Carmen, followed by the 'director's cut' of a few paragraphs about the Carmen Suite.
(I'm not insanely overwhelmed by Alonso's choreography, and would recommend that if you want to try a more contemporary account of Shchedrin's score, give Matthew Bourne's The Car Man a whirl - it's a radical reinterpretation of the story, and completely brilliant. But Plisetskaya isn't in that...).
SHCHEDRIN & THE CARMEN SUITE
"It was Maya's idea to dance Carmen and her first step was to Shostakovich because we have very good relation to him. She wrote libretto herself; we came to his dacha and Maya read him this libretto, of course not a professional libretto, and he saud "Yes yes, it's interesting, I will be thinking, I will be thinking..." And after few days he called us and said "Please come, I have final decision". So we came, and he said: "It is very nice libretto" - he is always speaking like that - "but I refuse." Why? "I am very busy... Because if public will come into concert hall and want to hear song of Toreador they wil be totally disappointed. I am very busy, I am very busy, please excuse me..."
"Then Maya asked Khatchaturian and he said: "Why you need me? You have a composer at home, ask him!" And then she push me, and I remember the words of Shostakovich - he is a wise man, a wise man - and so I had to combine something. From one side it had to be something fresh, from the other side it had to be some connection with these famous melodies. And was idea, I think a lucky idea, only to use strings and percussion because then it is a totally modern combination.
"The score by Bizet is fantastic, one of the best in the whole history of music. I took not only from Carmen but from L'arlesienne and his other work combined, but I had a good idea to combine strings with percussion. It also was some motivation because at that time strings in Bolshoi theatre orchestra were unbelievable, because it was 1967 and it was forbidden to emigrate from Sovciet Union & the best string players were in Bolshoi Theatre and the Leningrad Philharmonic with Mravinsky. Later sometime in 1972-73 begin the Jewish emigration from Russia to Israel - the best one because then they immediately go to America and in each orchestra the best playing in the strings are some fantastic Russian players! And also was excellent group of percussionists in Bolshoi theatre at the time. This was also some kind of motivation. but in the second place - first was of course that I dared to be totally far from this Bizet score without brass and woodwind, just percussion and strings, I did an orchestration that gave me many possibilities..."
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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