Let’s hear it for the percussion department! They literally take a back seat in the orchestra and, in these days of slimline orchestral performances, are often reduced in the ranks to an isolated timpanist. So bravo to Cristian Măcelaru, music director designate of the Orchestre National de France, for programming Rodion Shchedrin’s deliciously subversive Carmen Suite for the final concert in the Maison de la Radio’s Le Temps retrouvé season. Bizet’s music is rescored for strings and five percussionists, who tackle a battery of drums, marimbas, gongs, guiros and castanets – more percussion than you could shake a stick at.

ONF Percussion © France Musique
ONF Percussion
© France Musique

Carmen was created by Shchedrin in 1967 as a one-act ballet for his wife, Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya, yet he was not her first choice as composer. She had initially approached Dmitri Shostakovich, whose response was “I’m afraid of Bizet.” Plisetskaya then tried her luck with Aram Khachaturian, composer of such epic Soviet ballets as Spartacus and Gayane, but he told her, “Why do you need me? You have a composer at home, ask him!” But Shchedrin found he could not compose an original score, so inextricably linked is the story to Bizet’s opera, therefore he adapted Bizet instead. After the premiere, the ballet was banned by the Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva because it was seen as “insulting” to Bizet’s opera. “We cannot allow them to make a whore out of Carmen.” Only a personal intervention by Shostakovich finally rescued it.

ONF Percussion © France Musique
ONF Percussion
© France Musique

The ONF percussionists threw themselves into the task with glee, their flair allied to precision. After the doom-laden introduction where tubular bells played a pre-echo of the habanera theme, castanets and tambourine plunged us into the bullring. There was snare drum swagger at the Changing of the Guard (Don José’s little off-stage song, Les Dragons d'Alcala), while the Boléro – actually the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne – saw marimba glissandos rattle along like skeletons on a roller-coaster. Shchedrin’s scoring isn’t that subtle, but there’s humour. The Torero – Escamillo’s chest-puffing aria – suddenly has the strings pull out of playing the reprise of the big tune, leaving the audience to supply it themselves (in their heads, hopefully) over a pizzicato and hi-hat bassline before the whole kitchen sink is eventually thrown into mix.

Cristian Măcelaru © France Musique
Cristian Măcelaru
© France Musique

The strings played with great warmth, echoing the auditorium’s rich cherry wood panels. Cellos cooed in Carmen’s recitative before the habanera, while the principal viola, Allan Swieton, excelled in his solos. Măcelaru drew intense string playing in the card-reading scene, while Don José’s Flower Song was coaxed into a passionate climax. 

Măcelaru framed the Carmen Suite with two elegies for strings. The Adagio from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet is all too familiar, often used at times of great mourning. Gloopy speeds were avoided here, the young Romanian conductor maintaining a sense of flow without compromising on emotion. Less well known, Grieg’s The Wounded Heart provided an elegiac encore, deftly shaped. Măcelaru doesn’t take up his post here until September 2021, succeeding Emmanuel Krivine, but this looks a most promising partnership.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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