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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Golden Age - complete ballet Op.22 (1930)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 23-26 May 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570217-18 [76:41 + 67:01]

Anne Ozorio has already reviewed these discs with great enthusiasm and I should make it clear straightaway that my reactions are similar. This was a recording of the month in November and it is now too late to consider it for the 2006 recordings of the year. So there seem to be no more accolades to offer though I have made a mental note to put it on the shortlist for 2007. Although it is appropriate that this was issued in the composer’s centenary year it seems amazing that this is the first complete recording of such a major work. Most of the music was entirely new to me although I am familiar with a recording of the short suite made by Bernard Haitink around 1980 – I think that was originally issued in conjunction with the Dutch conductor’s recording of the First Symphony. Interestingly, on that disc it was apparently entitled The Age of Gold, which implies something rather different to me. Knowing not a word of Russian, I can’t comment on translation issues but The Golden Age surely makes more sense.

As Anne’s review implies, after the composer, much of the credit for the success of the disc must go to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra players and particularly conductor José Serebrier. Heretofore I have tended to regard him as a bit of a peripheral figure (possibly a "this side of the pond" bias) but no longer. There is an interesting article by him on the Naxos website reproduced from a recent issue of the International Record Review. Of humble origins in Uruguay his big break came through Leopold Stokowski. He is also a composer although I can’t recall having heard any of his music. What is apparent listening to the discs is that their making must have been a labour of love for orchestra and conductor alike – there is a real buzz that is maintained for the best part of two and a half hours. The recording is splendidly lucid and presentation excellent with good notes and a space-saving single-size jewel case.

The recording is based on the version given at the 1930 première in Leningrad (as it then was) and therefore includes Shostakovich’s transcription of Vincent Youman’s song Tea for Two as an Entr’acte between Acts II and III. The story is based on Dynamiada by Alexander Ivanovsky. A Soviet football team is visiting a Western town at the time of an industrial exhibition. After a brief but jaunty prelude, Act I is set at the exhibition and politics is the main theme. After numbers entitled General confusion, the embarrassment of the Fascists and A rare case of mass hysteria, the concluding catchy foxtrot offers some relief but still has dark undertones. Act II has scenes in the street and then in the stadium. The match itself comes right at the end of the first disc and is one of the more serious numbers. I am not clear who won but have my suspicions! Some of the most delightful music comes in the Music Hall scene in Act III which includes the memorable Polka with prominent xylophone part which Shostakovich included in the suite, a slinky Tango and a riotous Can-can. The final scene is set in a prison. Prisoners are freed, the bourgeoisie are in panic and there is a Final dance of solidarity.

This music is Shostakovich at his most inimitable. It is alternately serious and full of humorous twists, and invariably wonderfully orchestrated. One wonders just what the youthful composer was really poking fun at. I have no idea how well this works as a staged ballet but the music stands alone as fine entertainment. I was going to say that it will surely now take its place in the line of great Russian ballet music after Tchaikovsky and then Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. But, hang on a minute, this was written several years before Prokofiev’s masterpiece! A potentially perfect surprise present for any music lover, make sure you pick up a copy for yourself as well. Perhaps there is another accolade I can suggest – Bargain of the Century.

Patrick C Waller

see also Review by Anne Ozorio Recording of the Month - November


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