Andrei Eshpai has been fortunate. There are numerous of Russian composers of his generation and before who are barely represented in the catalogues of recorded music if at all, and evidence suggests that there is a wealth of music here worth rediscovering. Eshpai, however, has been lucky on disc, and most of his most important works have been recorded. It is not undeserved, for it is often very rewarding music, worthy of the attention of anyone at all interested in the byways of twentieth century. His style is generally relatively harmonically conservative, often tending toward post-romanticism, usually tonal but gritty and unafraid of sharp edges. Stylistically there are some hints of Shostakovich and Bartok, though the music does in the end not really sound anything like either (though I won’t say it’s really particularly original either).
The Symphonic Dances on Mari Themes (1952) are quite romantic in character, full of folksy, nationalistic melodic material and with plenty of energy and swagger. It’s not great music, perhaps, but enjoyable enough. The much more recent fourth violin concerto (1993) inhabits a rather different sound-world, however. It is dark, uneasy and spiky, shifting between fluttering activity and doom-laden bleakness – much of it tends toward atonality, but in a manner reminiscent of Bartok, and the conclusion is rather jazzy. I haven’t quite made up my mind about it, but it does encourage me to try, at least. The second symphony (1962) is much more accessible. It is also rather eclectic, mixing tuneful but short-breathed neo-classicism with modernist grit, nationalism and flat-out sentimentality. Nonetheless, it actually manages to stay on course, and to add up to a relatively convincing whole.
Overall, I suppose those interested in checking out the composer would do well to start with, say, the fourth or fifth symphonies, but the current release is enjoyable and rewarding. The performances are a bit rough at times, but conjure up plenty of energy and color – in the manner you would perhaps expect from Russian performances from the 70s. The same adjectives apply to the sound – even in the more recently (live) recorded violin concerto. Not an essential acquisition, perhaps, but an enjoyable release nonetheless.