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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Golden Age (Zolotoy vek) Op. 22 (1928) (complete)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier

rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 23-26 May 2006.
NAXOS 8.570217-18 [76:41 + 67:01]

This has been something of a “Golden Age” for The Golden Age, with a gala, fully-staged new production at the Mariinsky Ballet, which was repeated a fortnight later in London. The Mariinsky was where the ballet was first produced, and where it has been revived in previous years, so it can claim a certain pedigree. However, if the St Petersburg was played as poorly as it was in London (see review) I doubt anyone would be enthused to listen to it as music. 

This new recording, on the other hand, conducted by José Serebrier, makes a wonderful case for The Golden Age as stand-alone music, for its own sake. Serebrier gets straight into the exuberant spirit of the music, inspiring the RSNO so much so that they produce an incandescent performance which eclipses the Mariinsky, at least as heard at their London performance. Indeed, it’s executed with such panache that it even challenges the far more sophisticated LSO (with no less than Gergiev, at the 2006 Proms) and the Hallé (with Elder at Aldeburgh 2006). Music written for ballet is by nature episodic because it must allow for set-pieces for dance. It therefore needs an underlying thrust to convince as a musical whole, particularly if it is ever heard purely as music, as is the case with this recording.

Shostakovich had recently returned from a first visit abroad. He was fascinated by jazz, modern dance, agitprop cabaret, indeed the whole creative, chaotic buzz of 1920s Germany. Shostakovich could disguise his discoveries by working them into the plot of the ballet, pretending to be mocking them. That is perhaps why the music still rings true with a sense of enthusiastic commitment. A rapid succession of tableaux unfolds – a waltz, a polka, a tango, jerky, angular rhythms that evoke the spirit of social subversion that the “jazz age” represented, even in the decadent west. Shostakovich employs what were in 1920s Russia, daring, “modern” instruments, like the xylophone, woodblocks, and something known as a “flexitone”. He’s able to incorporate witty snatches of foxtrot and Charleston, and can’t resist a wicked variation on “Tea for Two” complete with saxophone. 

This recording comes extremely well documented in that the booklet describes the ballet scene by scene, so you can follow the action while listening and use your own imagination to create visual images. It’s a rewarding exercise – try it ! On the other hand, you can also listen simply as music because it’s so expressive. Serebrier wisely realizes that, without the constraints of having to be in synch with dancers, the music is “freed” so to speak to take on a life of its own. Thus he uses fast tempi, which propel the music on at a heady pace. It’s exciting, because it challenges the orchestra, and they respond with enthusiasm. Dancers might have a problem keeping up, but Serebrier knows the orchestra can do so, and will. They respond with alacrity, as if they were enjoying themselves hugely.

The heady atmosphere and fast pace might conceivably unravel after two and a half hours of playing, but in Serebrier’s hands, the orchestral textures are never compromised. Everything is kept in sharp focus, clearly delineated and lucid. Even in a studio recording it’s not that easy to keep up such intensity, but Serebrier and his players don’t show any sign of flagging. Tiny details like the piccolo symbolizing the football coach’s whistle, remain clear above the tumult. There’s a real whistle, too, in the actual football match scene. Every note of the xylophone rings pure and clear. There’s so much in this music that Serebrier must have had to be very quick and minimal with his signals. Yet the orchestra sounds as if they were bristling with anticipation, executing each entry with extreme precision. There’s no margin for error at these tempi. Leopold Stokowski, Serebrier’s mentor, called the young conductor “the greatest master of orchestral balance”. This performance shows why.

Similar clarity illuminates the slower sections. The Entr’acte Tea for two is quite magical. In the Music Hall scenes, the transitions between different sections are deftly handed, changes of direction turning on a pivot with the grace of a prima ballerina twirling en pointe. Serebrier stretches the dissonances convincingly – just distorted enough to remind us of the undercurrent of serious thought that runs beneath the exuberance. This Can Can isn’t really as carefree as may seem. In the ballet, the final scene depicts the triumph of the Soviet system over its class enemies. Ostensibly the music celebrates too. But Serebrier notes the shrill wail of the flute that ends the swaggering march. It heralds a surprisingly disturbing interpretation of the sections that follow. Trumpets and trombones here subvert the ostensible imagery, and the crackling staccato tension that infuses the penultimate piece is perhaps closer to Shostakovich’s real feelings than the rictus grin he was forced to present to the official world. Serebrier has thought through his interpretation carefully and sensitively. He’s not restrained by the dangers the composer faced, so he can give voice to the darker, more despairing subtext. This Final Dance of Solidarity is far more equivocal and more questioning than would have been possible in Soviet times. Quite frankly I got infinitely more from this recording than from hearing it with ballet, or other performances. Serebrier makes a powerful case for The Golden Age as serious music on its own terms.

This is a breathtaking recording in many ways. It’s also complete and uncut and the notes are good. Don’t hesitate – this is one that needs to be listened to, even in this crowded year of Shostakovich revelations.

Anne Ozorio 

1. Prelude 01:58
2. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Procession of the Guests of Honour 02:37
3. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Inspection of the Display Windows 02:02
4. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Demonstration of Important Exhibits - Appearance of the Soviet Football Team 02:56
5. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Magician - Advertising Agent - Dance of the Hindu 03:54
6. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Boxing as an Advertising Stunt 02:03
7. Act I Scene 1, The Golden Age of Industry Exhibition: Scandal during the Boxing Match - Entrance of the Police 02:17
8. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Dance of the Golden Youths 03:58
9. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Dance of Diva: Adagio 10:05
10. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Appearance of the Soviet Football Team and Diva's Variations 02:16
11. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Soviet Dance 02:17
12. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Diva asks the Leader of the Soviet Team to Dance with Her 01:10
13. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Dance and Scene of the Diva and the Fascist 05:56
14. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Dance of the Black Man and 2 Soviet Football Players 03:46
15. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: The Supposed Terrorist, "The Hand of Moscow" 03:17
16. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: General Confusion - The Embarrassment of the Fascists 01:47
17. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: A Rare Case of Mass Hysteria 02:58
18. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Conversation between the Director of the Exhibition and the Fascist 01:11
19. Act I Scene 2, Exhibition Hall: Foxtrot ... foxtrot ... foxtrot 04:59
20. Act II Scene 3, A Street in the Same City: Mime of the Agents Provocateurs, Provocation and Arrest: Galop 08:17
21. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Procession of the Workers to the Stadium - Dance of the Young Pioneers - Sports Games 01:51
22. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Football March 05:06
1. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Intermezzo, "Everybody amuses oneself in one's own way" 01:50
2. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Dance of the Western Komsomol Girl and 4 Sportsmen 06:39
3. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Sports Contests - Joint Sports Dance 03:44
4. Act II Scene 4, Workers' Stadium: Scene and Exit of the Soviet Team 02:07
5. Act III: Entr'acte, "Tea for Two" 03:28
6. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: Chechotka, "Shoe Shine of the Highest Grade" 04:51
7. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: Tango 03:18
8. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: Polka, "Once upon a Time in Geneva" - Polka, "Angel of Peace" 02:14
9. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: The Touching Coalition of the Classes, slightly fraudulent 04:25
10. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: Entrance of Diva and the Fascist - Their Dance 03:36
11. Act III Scene 5, Music Hall: Can - can 06:21
12. Act III Scene 6, Prison Building: Prelude 02:38
13. Act III Scene 6, Prison Building: Scene of the Freeing of the Prisoners 09:20
14. Act III Scene 6, Prison Building: Total Unveiling of the Conspiracy - The Bourgeoisie in Panic 06:42
15. Act III Scene 6, Prison Building: Final Dance of Solidarity 05:49





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