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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Tale of the Priest and his worker Balda: music to the cartoon film by Mikhail Tsekhanovsky op. 36 (1933-34) [54:53]
(Part I: Overture [1:23]; A Fair [1:52]; A Fair (continuation) [2:30]; Carousel [1:25]; Balda’s March [0:54]; Bell-Ringers Dance [2:16]; Carousel II [2:08]; The Bear’s Dance [2:55]; Balda’s Song [1:35]; The meeting of Balda and the Priest [1:32]; Dialogue of Balda and the Priest [1:15]; Finale of Part 1 [1:32]; Part II: A Village (Prelude) [2:00]; Balda’s first job [1:32]; The Metropolitan priest (Tea Drinking) [1:13]; Overture to the Evening Party [1:53]; Lullaby [4:25]; The Priest’s Daughter’s Dream [2:06]; Waltz [3:12]; Balda’s second job [0:54]; The Priest’s dance with the Devil [1:06]; Dance of the corpses [2:34]; Procession of Obscurantists [1:05]; Dialogue of Balda and the Old Devil [1:34]; First dialogue of Balda and the Imp [3:34]; The Devil’s couplets [1:18]; Second dialogue of Balda and the Imp [1:49]; The three knocks [1:56]; Balda’s Galop [1:25])
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District - Suite from the Opera op. 29a (1932) [6:41]: (Allego con brio [2:06]; Presto [2:41]; Allegretto [1:54])
Dmitri Beloselsky (Balda), Fyodor Bakanov (Imp), Sergei Blalashov (Priest), Dmitri Ulyanov (Devil)
Moscow State Chamber Choir
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
Russian State TV & Radio Company Kultura, Studio 5, Moscow, May 2005 (Lady Macbeth), May-June 2005 (Balda), DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6112 [61:34]

With the Shostakovich centenary (2006) the rush of new and reissued recordings has come pretty much as expected. The vast majority of the material has covered fairly well-worn territory - not necessarily to disadvantage - but as in previous anniversary binges the odd interesting corner has also been revealed to the spotlight. The disc under consideration most certainly falls into that category.
Not that I’m pretending Balda is a masterpiece – a claim only tenable from out-and-out Shostakovich groupies - nevertheless it does throw more light on a key period in the composer’s life and career.
The tale of Balda, adapted by Tsekhanovsky from a Pushkin original, was probably known to every Russian child. A priest hires Balda as his worker, for the price of “three knocks on the forehead”. To escape from his deal the Priest tries to give Balda impossible tasks to accomplish. However he completes them all and the Priest is forced to repay his debt. He bears his forehead and with the knocks he is driven senseless, with Balda repeating reproachfully, “So Priest you wanted a good price …”
Tsekhanovsky’s approach to tackling the work was dominated by the principle “first the music, then the film!”. It’s therefore no great surprise that he approached the 26 year old Shostakovich to meet the challenge, a young lion whose cinematic and ballet scores were already delighting audiences throughout Russia.
The director reported in his diaries that Shostakovich liked his scenario and that “he goes about his work like an inspired, first-rate artist”. It’s arguably the closest the composer came to working with the Russian folk-tale element so prominent elsewhere in his countrymen’s music. Despite relishing the opportunity to compose within this tradition, Shostakovich was conscious of impending criticism. He recalled: “Perhaps after the Tale of the Priest is shown on screen, I will again hear reproaches from certain music critics at my superficiality and mischief, at the absence of the real human emotions that at “long last” materialized in my Lady Macbeth. But what should we consider as human emotion? Do only lyricism, grief and tragedy count? Surely laughter also has a right to this honourable title?”
Despite working on the film for four years, Tsekhanovsky was unable to complete it and thus it’s only with the present issue that listeners are at last able to hear the work in its full and authentic form. The completion and finishing of the score was undertaken by one of his pupils Vadim Bibergan, at the instigation of Irina Antonovna, Shostakovich’s widow.
As befits a cartoon score the result is a rather bitty piece with a degree of commonplace writing designed to accompany a fairly sharp-moving scenario. Moreover Shostakovich seems to enjoy the task hugely. Listen to the wonderfully crude trombone glissandi in the overture, or the fairground style for the circus scene. The carousel music suggests Kurt Weill, with piquant scoring also reminiscent of his own early opera The Nose. The Bear dance also evinces smile-inducing farts in the low brass, reminding me of the “juicy, fat beetles” his great contemporary Prokofiev was so fond of.
The short suite from Lady Macbeth comes as a complete and understandable contrast, entering a totally different sound-world. It is hardly necessary for me to repeat here the crucial nature of the opera and its aftermath to Shostakovich’s career. The impact of the presumed Stalin-led criticism was devastating for the composer. He probably came as close to losing his life during the months following the Pravda attack as he did at any time during his tortuous existence under the Soviet regime.
Having had reissued Rostropovich’s memorable sound recording of this great opera during the year (on EMI Great Recordings of the Century), as well as a couple of DVDs of recent productions, it’s particularly interesting to hear this suite, arranged immediately after Shostakovich had completed the score. It consists of three interludes: those between the second and third, seventh and eighth, and sixth and seventh scenes, the order being deliberately swapped around. Once again this is claimed as a first recording.
Altogether a fascinating disc which sheds new light during a major anniversary. The Russian Philharmonic performs admirably under Sanderling’s direction and the recording is reasonably bright and close, presumably in an attempt to create an appropriate “celluloid” feel.
For the adventurous or curious Shostakovich fan a must.
Ian Bailey



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