Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Music from the films - Volume 5
Golden Hills Suite Op.30a (1931) [21:59]
The tale of the Priest and his worker Balda Op.36 (1934) [14:49]
Adventures of Korzinkina Op.59 (1940) [10:13]
The Silly Little Mouse Op.56 (1939) [15:22]
Byelorussian Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra/Walter Mnatsakanov [Op.30a only];
State Cinematographic Orchestra/Walter Mnatsakanov
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, Russia, February 1997 (Opp. 36, 56, 59) April 1997 (Op.30a)
DELOS DRD2005 [62:44]

Film music was central to the life of Shostakovich. I do not mean by that that it contains the finest, most personal or indeed the most profound music he ever composed but its existence kept him alive - quite literally. Stalin understood on a social level the influence and power of film and watched private viewings of favourite films every night at his dacha. Whatever that dictator's megalomaniac madness he understood quite rightly that Shostakovich was the finest composer for film the Soviet Union possessed. So even in the terrifying denunciations post Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 and the 1948 Zhdanov decree when official concert programmers shunned Shostakovich and lesser composers 'disappeared' Stalin ensured that Shostakovich was not only spared the ultimate sanction of internal exile or even execution but also fed a trickle of film score commissions that literally kept food on the Shostakovich family’s table. Don't forget too that the composer allotted most of these scores opus numbers, so for all of his dismissive railing against the 'hack-work' nature of some of the music it does need to be considered as a valid part of the galaxy of his work. Yes they might be moons to the planets of the great symphonies or quartets but they are part of that same universe. To apply the same critical value system to say Lady Macbeth and the film score The Golden Hills recorded here is madness yet they share adjacent opus numbers. Almost more than any other (great) composer I can think of Shostakovich is the most pragmatic - his music was composed to fulfil an imperative be it personal or public. So to dismiss the cinematic 11th and 12th symphonies because they are not as 'good' as the 8th or 10th is to miss the point - they were not meant to be. Where Shostakovich is truly remarkable is how often he succeeds in fulfilling perfectly the remit of the task in hand; the personal quartet is inward and intimate, the symphony a public statement of often startling braveness - yes even those problematic cinematic symphonies - check out the actual texts of the quoted folksongs - the film music apt, entertaining and dramatic as required. It is also worth remembering that Shostakovich wrote for film through the bulk of his creative life from the extraordinary New Babylon of 1929 - the new Naxos complete original recording is eagerly awaited - to the powerful and bleak King Lear of 1970.

Given how highly I rate the composer in this genre you might rightly expect that I would be eagerly interested in any series of discs surveying his output. This disc from Delos is entitled Volume 5. A few things to make clear - these are licensed re-releases of discs originally made for Russian Disc, in the case of the current disc in 1997. So for Delos to mark the liner "newly recorded" is frankly misleading. Yes they have been newly re-mastered but in no sense are they 'new'. Elsewhere, everything is pretty much as the avid collector of this type of music would expect. The use of second tier Russian orchestras and locally sourced master tapes ensures a certain sound that could be described as somewhat rough and ready. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in music like this; it is after all deliberately simplistic in creation of mood (most of the time) and the shallow sound-stage and slightly harsh recorded quality add a kind of authenticity to the performances that works well. On this volume four scores are presented which interestingly straddle the famous "muddle instead of music" denunciation of 1936. The Golden Hills and The tale of the Priest and his worker Balda are from the time when Shostakovich's star was firmly ascendant. The Adventures of Korzinkina and The Silly Little Mouse are sandwiched between that denunciation and the Soviet Union's entry into the Second World War. The former fascinatingly has the Opus number (59) immediately preceding the Leningrad Symphony which pretty much overnight secured the rehabilitation of the composer and made him a globally important composer and as such all but untouchable even in the paranoid Soviet Union.

Although this disc contains a unique combination of scores all are available elsewhere although in occasionally different editions. The first music here is both the most recorded and the most 'standard' in the editions used across other discs. Conductor Walter Mnatsakanov and The Byelorussian Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra face direct and exact competition from Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC PO on Chandos (vols 1, 2, 3), Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and his Ministry of Culture SO on Russian Disc, Mikhail Jurowski and the Berlin RSO on Capriccio to name but a few. The Byelorussian players are no match for those in Berlin or the Ministry of Culture - I have not heard the BBCPO but since they are a formidable orchestra draw your own conclusions. I should say that the rest of the disc is played by the State Cinematographic Orchestra whose playing is superior and they are better recorded. If you are considering buying this disc you will know the sound-world you are entering; popular musical forms abound. Polkas, Galops, Waltzes swirl by deliriously tempered by a sudden bleak intermezzo or an abyss-bound funeral march. I absolutely adore the madness and disjointed non-sequitur this produces for the listener – it’s like a strangely bizarre dream-world where the profound and trite collide. Ex-Soviet orchestras have this genre in their blood and the blatant primary colour nature of much of the music suits their performance style to perfection. The waltz [track 2] from The Golden Hills is a perfect example. After a perfectly standard introduction there is a wonderfully woozy guitar solo - here on an instrument that sounds like a Hawaiian guitar played by someone all the better for a bottle of rum. It is absolutely perfect (matching Rozhdestvensky's version where the guitarist is equally inebriated) and in striking contrast to the much 'better' played/recorded playing for Jurowski - there in its po-faced correctness missing the character completely. At early performances the third movement - Fugue - created a stir with its use of a concertante organ part. Its not a fugue at all which is slightly perplexing. The instrument on the recording here is quite dreadful - a tubby electronic instrument with no subtlety or tonal range but again the music does not necessarily require it. However in this instance both this movement and the others in the suite are better performed elsewhere. The final eight minute sequence of three sections; Intermezzo-Funeral March-Finale run together and contain the most heartfelt and tragic music on the disc. It is passionately played by the Byelorussian orchestra but they are consistently outclassed by the competition.

Both The tale of the Priest and his worker Balda and The Silly Little Mouse are scores for cartoons. The former exists in competing versions - either of the brief 7-movement suite (as recorded here) or 'complete' including the vocal and choral parts. I have not heard any other version which is perhaps why I enjoyed this piece most of the music presented here. Even without knowing of the cartoon background there is a mad-cap Looney-Tunes deliriousness to this music that is very compelling. The playing of the State Cinematographic Orchestra is a significant notch up on that of their compatriots. As with much of the music here it is deliberately illustrative. Shostakovich's great skill is to fuse memorable melody with the clearly programmatic yet retaining his distinct personality - whilst often using quite small instrumental groups. Try the Bazaar movement [track 10] - a veritable riot of colliding themes and colourful instrumentation yet unmistakably Shostakovich. The second cartoon score The Silly Little Mouse again raises questions of editions. At the time this recording was made it could call itself a world premiere recording. Fourteen years down the line there is competition. This is a mini children's opera setting a simple fable-like story. In essence the baby mouse cannot sleep so various animals offer to sing it to sleep. None succeed except the cunning cat who at the point of devouring the now-resting rodent is chased away by a dog. That really is the sum extent of the narrative so Shostakovich does pretty well to extend it to fifteen or so minutes. The recording here is rather crude with the voices set well forward in a cavernous acoustic - especially a rather scary female narrator - which dwarfs the orchestral detail behind. If you want the work complete with narrator and singing (including a silent part for a pike) there is competition from another version from 'The Russian Classical collection'. The instrumental part alone has been recorded by Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra as part of their Decca 'Shostakovich - The Film Album'. Not surprisingly this is in a different league in pure performance and production terms and this deliberately slight music benefits from the extra finesse the Dutch orchestra bring. On balance, for this minor chip from the master's block I think would opt for that version for the sheer beauty of the sound. For those who do require the full version texts are included here. The final score is for an abortive 3-part series of comedies which were shelved with the German invasion. The identical suite from the Adventures of Korzinkina was recorded again by Rozhdestvensky and variously released on Olympia as part of a disc called "Manuscripts of different years" or on an RCA twofer simply called 'Shostakovich Orchestral Works'. These discs are still findable at a high premium - the latter includes that conductor's versions of The Golden Hills and The tale of the Priest too. At every turn Rozhdestvensky seems the more colourful and imaginative interpreter. One curio; the movement entitled Restaurant Music [track 17] is described in the liner here as "one of the most inspired pasticcios ever penned by Shostakovich". It is not a pasticcio (in the strictest musical sense) at all - a pastiche perhaps. What is more curious is that Mnatsakanov takes exactly half as long again to play the piece as Rozhdestvensky; three minutes to the latter's two. Interestingly both versions work but instinct tells me the faster version 'feels' right. Someone clearly hasn't watched the film though since there will be an absolute tempo set there that should surely be recreated. Mentioning the liner, it looks as though Delos has rather lazily reprinted the original from 1997. Nothing wrong in that as such except that there has been a significant shift in perception of Shostakovich from guilt-ridden party acolyte to secret dissident. The revised version of Ian McDonald's 'The New Shostakovich' puts the dissident case very well and rather debunks phrases such as "For Shostakovich, all these [musical forms such as the can-can, fox-trot, tango etc.] symbolised the vulgarity of the nouveau riche and the bourgeois way of life contained here".

Collectors of this continuing series will not need to read this review to persuade them to buy this disc or not. For those discovering Shostakovich's films scores for the first time other performers offer equally idiomatic versions of these compelling works rendered in far better sound and technical performance. As a single disc overview the Decca/Chailly disc is hard to beat.

Nick Barnard

Collectors of this continuing series will not need to read this review to persuade them to buy this disc.