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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]


This Naxos double has received a superb review from Anne Ozorio so mine will have a slightly different spin – in the cricket sense.

For starters, José Serebrier is a top rate conductor/composer with a sense of choice and judgement second to none. He gets the very best from a youthful RSNO without a fluff.

I usually criticise engineers but Phil Rowlands and producer Tim Oldham deserve as much praise as the conductor and orchestra. The latter are on belting form in the superb acoustics of the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow with an almost Russian reverb time which Serebrier uses well.

Anyone who appreciates what orchestral sound can offer at its best through even moderate hi-fi or mid-range headphones can expect a treat. Through up-market gear and/or top-end ‘cans’ I recommend this release to show what a full orchestra can do. Music teachers should rush out and buy this Naxos double to show students how orchestras are used and where instruments are placed, especially as the short movements allow plenty of picking and choosing.

The main drawback of full ballet music issues (even Tchaikovsky’s) is that some of it simply supports the action and can be less than engaging when standing alone. Parts of ‘The Age of Gold’ Op.22 certainly have this problem.

The 24 year-old Shostakovich was in good company as the entire Stravinsky ‘Firebird’ and Bartók’s ‘Miraculous Mandarin’ can cause a few yawns. That is why the composers made suites of the musically most interesting aspects. Ravel and Prokofiev did the same but young Dmitri S - advised by his mentor Prokofiev - published a suite of items 1, 2, 9, 11 and 30 ahead of the premiere in 1930. Just to be correct track 30 should be 31 in the otherwise excellent notes mentioned immediately below.

There were peculiarly Soviet reasons for this. The superb CD notes by Richard Whitehouse hint at this but do not offer a full explanation. Experimental music was just about tolerated in the early 1920s but Prokofiev had been ‘told off’ a few times for being what the Soviets called ‘formalist’. Then again, he was too famous to be shot down - and held dual nationality anyway. His protégé Shostakovich had no such protection and when Lenin died in 1924 Stalin took control. The concept of ‘Socialist Realism’ spread from the Kremlin and the influence Andrei Zhdanov began, even though he was not made Minister of Culture until 1934 after a few assassinations and purges of intellectuals.

Making a five movement suite was a clever way of ensuring that a modest edition would get outside the USSR – but listening to this amazing full score under Serebrier I wonder why Shostakovich stuck at five when so much else is both gorgeous and important! Okay he was young but a second suite could have been made after the Stalin era. But then there was the irony of Stalin and Prokofiev dying on the same day in 1953.

Ballet ‘plots’ are often even more far-fetched than opera ones. This one by Alexander Ivanovsky of film fame in the 1920s is so peculiar and particular to its time that I shall not get bogged down in its speciality. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of entomologists discussing the mating habits of a beetle only found on an acre of land in Upper Volta. Let us get down to the music.

As AO covers the work so well as a free-standing opus I recommend this marvellous Serebrier achievement in relation to what followed in the career of DSCH and especially in the symphonies.

I could list every dot ’n’ jot but this would make no sense unless listeners have experience of the symphonies in some detail or at least are becoming acquainted with them. There are however some aspects of ‘The Age of Gold’ which simply cannot be overlooked in this context. If the symphonies are the lock then this Op.22 is at the very least a rough-hewn key.

On CD1, Track 4 has percussion ‘clacks’ used by Shostakovich in the 4th, 14th and 15th symphonies and that skeletal device was clearly in the young composer’s subconscious.

Track 13 ‘Diva and the Fascist’ has deep unease which looks forward to the 4th symphony’s best cross-rhythmic sections in four separate places. We just know that something is wrong and sinister when Shostakovich uses this musical language. Serebrier’s supreme interpretation of the famous ‘Dance of the Diva’ (CD 1 Track 9) is a perfect case of compare and contrast.

By the way, the lovely Adagio for soprano saxophone and an economical orchestra has been rendered by many in the Suite version. Serebrier simply IS supreme in this prefiguring of the more gorgeous tunes Shostakovich used in the 5th, 6th, 7th and 10th symphonies in orchestral garb. The ‘Suicide’ movement of the 14th for soprano and chamber orchestra also uses very similar phrases. Serebrier is not a musician for ‘bleeding chunks’ but sees things as a whole. That’s why he makes this longest movement of Op.22 its understated glory.

CD 1 Track 13 has touches of the 4th symphony as well as the piano concertos, 17 has themes and harmonies we find in the 8th and Track 19 uses ‘chaotic’ phrases found in the 2nd and 3rd symphonies. Thus the composer was trying out ideas he could use later - without saxophones - in times of less freedom as Stalin tightened his grip. Stalin considered saxophones decadent.

Track 19 is brief but we learn so much from it about what came later. It is as if the composer was confused and excited simultaneously. There are even shades of a canonic ‘escape route’ (10th symphony) as if the way out of emotional turmoil is logic. This is human nature and Shostakovich appreciated it as a very young man.

CD 2 Track 12 introduces deep menace after a fair bit of orchestral merriment - yet always with a great big question mark shown by the use of clever minor inversions and oppositions to even simple themes. We never quite know if the pure soviets or the fascist capitalists are ‘right’ in what Shostakovich makes of Ivanovsky’s weird plot. That said, the music from Track 12 to the end is full of cheek but also reflects the serious side of the composer. Practically it serves to announce his lifelong musical menu.

The very strange opening of Track 13 only makes true sense if one knows the later music. Then Shostakovich follows up - in this second longest movement - with very large hints towards the seminal 4th symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – both of which were banned by Stalin. Serebrier is the musician to present this highly compressed statement in a clear way, especially the composer’s return to the quiet opening before a cheeky fanfare leading to track 14.

It’s all there in just over six minutes: the Shostakovich trademark of clever percussion with busy strings and a sub-text of woodwind and brass. He also uses, for the second time in this work, an exact quotation of the woodwind theme from Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’ denoting the hero puppet’s subversive and indestructible guile. This casts doubt on the last movement, ‘Dance of Solidarity’ which stays in what to my ears is a rather hollow major key.

Shostakovich loved his country and eschewed all chances to leave. On the other hand he disliked the leadership so occasionally was forced to compromise his art, yet never without sly digs lost on dim politicians. The symphonies demonstrate this fully but, I admit, this full version of ‘The Age of Gold’ surprised me in just how much the composer packed into a ballet score serving a pretty daft plot about ideology.

Serebrier’s genius as a conductor/composer is to know his subject thoroughly so if this masterly recording doesn’t attract a stack of prizes I would be surprised.

This Naxos double has no faults whatever – and I usually find something to whinge about. Not this time because this recording shows understanding of a great composer with the genius already in him as a young man.

Stephen Hall

see also Reviews by Anne Ozorio and Patrick Waller




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