“Russian Oboe Concertos” = VALERY KITKA: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra No. 1; Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra No. 3; ANDREY RUBTSOV: Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra; ANDREY ESHPAI: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra /Maria Sournatcheva, oboe /Göttinger Sym. Orch./ Christoph-Mathias Mueller ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MDG 901 1947-6 (and 2+2+2), 72:24 (5/13/16) ****:
Accessible concertos from contemporary Russia.
The oldest composer on this program, Andrey Eshpai (1925‒2015), was born shortly after the October Revolution, served in the Russian Army in World War II, and studied with Soviet stalwart composers Nicolai Myaskovsky and Aram Khachaturian. However, his Oboe Concerto of 1982 sounds the most contemporary of all the concertos on this disc. It is also, as far as I can recall, the only work by a composer from the Republic of El Mari (part of Russia since the days of the Czars). Bordered on the south by the Volga River, El Mari is situated in the European Plain of Russia. Eshpai’s music draws on the folk music of his birthplace (from which his family moved, to Moscow, when the composer was three). However, being no ethnomusicologist, I can’t say that the folk element in his music is distinctly different from what I’ve heard by Russian and Ukrainian composers. The music has that typically modal quality associated with folk music, but an interesting twist is that Eshpai was also influenced by Western jazz, so the concerto presents a unique blending of musical traditions. The orchestra includes a harpsichord, which has some jazzy bits to play along the way.
Eshpai wrote in all musical genres, producing nine symphonies (!), ballets, operas, and songs; like so many other twentieth-century Russian composers, he wrote film scores, over sixty in fact. It’s not surprising that some parts of his concerto have a cinematic intensity about them, as well as the splashy orchestration of film scores. Although the music is unfailingly tonal, Eshpai doesn’t shy away from dissonance in the more dramatic passages. The concerto is in one continuous movement, though it does embrace a Meno mosso (quasi andante) middle section that corresponds to a slow movement. Much of the drama and mystery resides in this middle section, the outer ones being more lively and dancelike. Overall, the piece is memorably varied and colorful.
I can’t really say as much for the piece by Andrey Rubtsov (b. 1982), the youngest composer represented here. Rubtsov is one of those triple-threat musicians, being a conductor, composer – and oboist, which isn’t a usual background for a conductor (pace oboist-conductor Heinz Holliger). A graduate of both the Moscow Conservatory and the Royal College of Music, Rubtsov is the oboist on Julia Fischer’s well-received recording of Bach violin concertos (Decca 4781428). As to Rubtsov’s conducting, I’m in the dark since there are no recorded samples as far as I know. Of his composing skill, having only the oboe concerto to go on, I would have to say it doesn’t leave a strong impression, though the concerto accomplishes what Rubtsov set out to do, create a work in the neoclassical vein. True to form, it’s light and spunky in the outer movements, with a vein of Russian melancholy in the central Larghetto. Like an early Classical symphony, the concerto is top-heavy, balancing a ten-minute first movement against a three-minute finale marked Burlesque. Vivo. Except for that middle movement, the work sounds more French than Russian, maybe like an Eastern European evocation of Jean Francaix.
Valery Kitka (b. 1941) was educated at the Moscow Conservatory and teaches there as well. He has written eleven ballets (how very Russian!) and about as many concertos, four of them for oboe. Concerto No. 3, scored for oboe and string orchestra, is a relatively light work, matching its chamber-musical scoring. The three movements bear titles: “Pastoral Idyll,” “Song of the Blissful Night,” and “A Masked Ball.” For me, it has more character and profile than Rubtsov’s similarly scored concerto, the song-like central movement being especially attractive.
However, I prefer Kitka’s Concerto No. 1, subtitled “From Belgorod,” a reworking of a 1983 concerto scored for oboe and an orchestra of Russian folk instruments such as balalaika, domra, shawm, and ratchet. In this concerto Kitka paid homage to the folk orchestras that were a mainstay of entertainment during the Soviet era. Russian Melodiya recorded examples that are still available on disc, I’m sure. [But the very best are the Balalika Orchestra vinyls on Mercury Living Presence…Ed.] While Kitka rescored the work in 1991 to include brass as well as strings and winds as part of the orchestral palette, he retained the folk quality of his original scoring, employing a large and lively percussion section. The work is based on folk melodies from the Belgorod region in the Carpathian Mountains, especially shepherd songs and dances. Cast in a single movement, a rondo, the concerto presents a series of contrasting sections some of which have a glittery repetitiousness that reminds me a bit of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, but I doubt there is any real influence going on here. The end of the work reproduces a mountain storm, complete with howling winds (thanks to the woodwind section) and thunder provided by the timpani.
Oboist Maria Sournatcheva has a richly colored tone and, at least as recorded, powerful delivery even in the context of the big orchestra that Eshpai and Kitka make her compete against. Even when making big sounds, the Göttinger Symphonie under Christoph-Matthias Mueller is a respectful accompanist. MDG’s sumptuous recording completes the picture, a mostly very attractive one.