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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Podrugi (The Girlfriends) - Complete Film Music Op. 41 (ii) (reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald) (1936) [46:33]
Rule, Britannia! Op. 28 (1931) [8:45]
Salute to Spain Op. 44 (1936) [10:52]
Symphonic Movement (unfinished) (1945) [6:42]
Celia Sheen (theremin) (The Girlfriends); Kamil Barczewski (bass) (Salute to Spain); Camerata Silesia (Anna Szostak, director)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Fitz-Gerald
rec. Gregorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, August-October 2008, January 2009. DDD
Notes by John Riley, Mark Fitz-Gerald, David Fanning, Olga Digonskaya
NAXOS 8.572138 [72:53] 
Experience Classicsonline

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.

On 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. 

In 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. 

The 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. 

When 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. 

The 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.

William Kreindler



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