If one puts together all the operas, film scores, ballets and
sets of incidental music that Shostakovich wrote, one would find
that his “dramatic” music comprises more than a third of his entire
output. Given the conditions under which he worked, such pieces
would show a greater variety in quality than in the output of
someone living in a non-totalitarian state. This is exactly what
we find on this record: music written to serve political purposes
that sometimes can’t help being good.
this disk we have two sets of incidental music and one film
score, as well as a historical curiosity. Around 1931 the
composer was working for a theatrical group known as TRAM
which was engaged in a production called Rule, Britannia!
The plot is very similar to that of the ballet The Age
of Gold. Here, a Western engineer - engineers were big
in Russia at that time - joins the Communist cause against a background of the
struggle between communism and fascism. The score to the original
production is lost and we only have the music for four numbers,
with the “Protest” movement reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald.
While I would not insult the music by calling it “agitprop”
one definitely gets the idea that the composer was not enjoying
himself while writing it. Only the aforementioned “Protest”
movement, which reminds one of some of Shostakovich’s earlier
film music, evinces genuine feeling.
spite of a title that sounds like a 1930s Hollywood musical, Salute to Spain is altogether more substantial than
Rule, Britannia! It was one of his first efforts to
reingratiate himself with the Party after the Lady Macbeth
of Mtsensk debacle of 1936. It incorporates genuine historical
characters of the Spanish Civil War and follows the adventures
of three Spanish sisters who perish fighting the Fascists
- see the end-result of The Girlfriends. While much
of the material consists of fanfares, marches and revolutionary
songs (well-set), the music for the Song of Rosita
is genuinely moving as is its reminiscence just before the
final music, which is an equally affecting Funeral March for
her sister Lucia. These sections are music of genuine quality.
Girlfriends is an epic tale about
three friends, Asya, Zoya and Natasha, who grow up under Tsarism
and their later adventures as nurses in the Russian Civil
War. In the first part they really are girls and Shostakovich
has some effective music as familial situations yield to a
great strike at the rubber plant at which the girls’ parents
are employed. After the near death of Asya’s mother the girls
try to earn money by singing at an inn. This produces the
most interesting section, musically, of Part 1 - the character
Sylich’s description of the death of his son aboard the battleship
Potemkin. After this affecting tale, a riot breaks out and
the girls just escape the arrival of the militia. Part 2 takes
place in 1919 and is heralded by an amazing fanfare for brass
and organ. The girls have become nurses for the Red Army and
are almost captured when the town of Pushkin falls to the Whites. They are rescued by Sylich on a train and during
their flight we have the most surprising musical episode of
the film: a series of bizarre variants of the Internationale
played on the theremin. There are further escapes for the
three, but at the end Asya is killed and the film ends with
a very moving elegy. Of the twenty-three tracks almost every
one is scored for a different small group of instruments from
the one preceding it, although several incorporate string
quartet and piano - a reminder that the composer was working
on his first piano concerto at this time. But the score is
not at all fragmentary and the drama is maintained.
I received this disc the item that most interested me was
the unfinished Symphonic Movement. As is well-known the authorities
in Russia expected that Shostakovich would complete his war-time trilogy, started
with the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, with a work that would
both be a fit paean to the end of WWII and a worthy Symphony
No. 9 in itself. Several of his students had indicated that
the composer started such a piece, but Shostakovich instead
produced the Symphony No. 9 that we know, which while estimable,
is neither a patriotic epic nor a companion to the Beethoven
9th. The Shostakovich scholar Olga Digonskaya,
after years of searching, was able to locate the opening of
the original Symphony No. 9. This work has some of the same
dissonance found in Symphony No. 8. There is an unrelenting
main theme and an interesting second subject. However, I found
that the work proceeded on motor energy more than actual conviction.
Perhaps the composer felt something similar: no matter how
happy he might feel at the end of the conflict, it was not
really his style to say so musically. Or perhaps he just wished
to avoid “presumptuous”, as he put it, comparisons with the
great Ninth of Beethoven. In any event, something of a disappointment.
somewhat cavernous sound of the Grzegorz Fitelberg hall actually
adds to the overall feel of the film score, lending a certain
authenticity. Celia Sheen is good as always in her strange
variation on the Internationale - a far cry from Midsomer
Murders. Equally good is Kamil Baczewski in his excerpts
from Salute to Spain - he sings this music very movingly.
The orchestra does well in following their conductor through
a wide variety of emotional territory, both as a complete
entity and in the various subgroups used in The Girlfriends.
I felt that after putting together this large score, Fitz-Gerald
could have put more energy into conducting it. His reading
is good, but could reveal more of the excitement that is in
the music. His conducting of the other works is exceptional.
In producing this disk, Fitz-gerald has shown us new sides
of Shostakovich’s endeavor in three fields: symphonic, cinematic
and theatrical and for this and his disc of the score to Odna,
we owe him a debt of thanks.