Rodion Shchedrin, the best-known Soviet composer of his generation (he is in his 46th year, and shares a birthday with Beethoven and Kodaly), has been in Washington during the last week as one of the judges in the Kennedy Center-rockefeller Foundation International Competitions for Excellence in the Performance of American Music. His presence here coincides, more or less, with the first domestic release of a recording of his Symphony No. 2, which is in itself an event worth noting.
The title of Shchedrin's music we have had opportunities to hear in our concert halls has been for the most part on the lighter side - or, in any event, the sort of things that easily becomes classified as an orchestral showpiece. The romp called Mischievous Ditties (also known as Naughty Limericks - no one seems to notice it is designated a "Concerto for Orchestra") was introduced to National Symphony audiences by guest conductor Walter Hendl in 1967, and the Carmen ballet suite, in which Bizet's tunes are imaginatively rearranged for strings and percussion, has been performed by several American orchestras. At present Carmen is the only title by which Shchedrin is represented in the Schwann Catalogue, though in the recent past there were Melodiya/Angel discs of the ballet Anna Karenina and a suite from the opera Not Love Alone as well as Mischevous Ditties. (The suite from Not Love Alone will be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under William Smith in February.)
The Second Symphony is a far more serious work than those mentioned so far, and - though not for that reason alone - a more important one. In it we encounter not merely brilliant technique but genuine substance and the sort of individuality that expresses itself in terms of urgency. Indeed, it was this Symphony, completed in 1965, that accounted in large measure for the eminence Shchedrin began to enjoy in his early 30s, and it seems odd, to say the least, that we have not been given opportunities, even via recording, to acquaint ourselves with this work in the last dozen years.
The Symphony bears the subtitle "25 Preludes for Orchestra." The preludes are distributed unevenly in five movements in which most of the music is intensely serious) the score carries lines from Tvardovsky's poem "The Day the War Ended"); there are flashes of humor too, and a huge variety of orchestral color, with many remarkable passages for small ensembles. There are aleatoric sections, stunningly handled in the recorded performance by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, issued now on the Westminister Gold label (WG-8357).
The recording was made shortly after the work's 1965 premiere (the "July 1975", recording date on the liner is surely a misprint), and ought to have been issued here long before now. It does sound better than ever, though, in Lanky Linstrot's excellent new mastering for this release, and this possibly important, definitely provocative symphony is especially welcome at the Westminster price.