Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Music From the Films – Volume 5
Golden mountains – Suite, Op. 30a (1931)* [21:59]
Introduction: Moderato
Waltz: Andante
Fugue: Largo - Allegro
Intermezzo: Andante
Funeral march: Largo
Finale: Largo
The tale of the priest and his servant Balda - Suite, Op. 36a (1935) [14:49]
Nocturnal procession
Balda's dialogue
The adventures of Korzinkina, Op. 59 (1940) [10:13]
The chase
Restaurant music
The silly little mouse, Op. 56 (1939) [15:22]
*State Cinematograph Orchestra; Byelorussian Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra/Walter Mnatsakanov
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, April 1997 (Golden mountains); SKAT Studios, Minsk, February 1997 (Balda, Korzinkina, Little mouse).
Transliterated Russian/English texts provided
DELOS DRD 2005 [62:45]

Shostakovich’s music for film and stage reveals the lighter side of this otherwise lugubrious composer. Certainly, in the 1930s – in the years leading up to the denunciation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at least – Shostakovich bequeathed some gems to Soviet cinema. Apart from the pieces recorded here, his scores include Alone (1931), The Girlfriends (1934-1935) and Volochayev days (1936-1937). Delos’s multi-volume survey dates to the 1990s, but since then Naxos have issued a fine CD of Alone, much praised by BBr – review – and The Girlfriends, warmly welcomed by WK (review). As for Golden mountains and Volochayev days, they’ve both been recorded by Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos CHAN 10183. Most exciting, perhaps, is the eagerly awaited Naxos disc of New Babylon (1929), even though we already have Frank Strobel’s fine version for Hänssler.

What’s most gratifying about these new releases is that they’re quality performances that really do justice to Shostakovich’s uneven – but entertaining – music for the movies. Seconds into Walter Mnatsakanov’s Golden mountains – with the State Cinematograph Orchestra, not the Byelorussian one as stated on the box – it’s clear we’re in for an exhilarating, if bumpy, ride. The thumping, cymbal-shredding introduction to this tale of peasant Pyotr who seeks his fortune in the big city, seems to catch the band on the hop, the music dispatched with a raucous energy associated with Soviet-era performances. At times even the recording harks back to an earlier age, although the over-exuberant presentation is just right for this material.

There’s much to celebrate here, from the impish little waltz to the big-boned, Bachian fugue, the latter played with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. The organ is somewhat upfront, but the Delos recording is generally fine, offering wide dynamics and a decent soundstage. There’s a real sense of being seated in a darkened auditorium, enchanted, this solo reminiscent of von Stroheim’s Gothic musings in Sunset Boulevard or, perhaps, the accompaniment to Lugosi’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. That said, the outrageous orchestral onslaught that follows – no-one does bombast better – had me laughing out loud. But then there’s the louring intermezzo and funeral march, both typical of Shostakovich’s work in the genre – glimpses of symphonic mastery side-swiped by music of raw populism and punch. And if it’s full-on you’re after, just listen to that riotous finale.

In The tale of the priest and his servant Balda the Byelorussian band seems more refined – if one can use that word in this context – but it’s quite close as well. The overture has all the usual quirks, with prominent timps, cheeky brass and low, rasping bass. The cymbals are especially well caught in the strange Nocturnal procession, as are the swooning trombones in Bazaar. Subtle this isn’t, these workmanlike tunes laced with subversive wit and a real sense of mischief. Just sample the veer and verve of Balda’s dialogue, or that oddly undreamlike Dream. Not what one might expect, perhaps, but great fun nonetheless.

A comedy, The adventures of Korzinkina embraces those same dichotomies, from a ‘straight’ overture and perky march to a rollicking chase worthy of Mack Sennett; the two pianos in the latter are played – and recorded – with real gusto. It’s marvellous stuff and, as the liner-notes suggest, at times it echoes the First Piano Concerto (1933). Indeed, one senses in this score a new sophistication, a extra pliancy of rhythm and range, notably in the Restaurant music. The choral finale catches one off-guard too, but then, like Monty Python’s Inquisitors, one of Shostakovich’s chief weapons is that of surprise.

Mouse, Pig, Toad, Horse and Cat are characters beautifully voiced by an all-Russian cast in this version of the animation classic Glupiy mishonok (The silly little mouse). By all accounts the composer enjoyed working on this project, and it really shows in the sustained charm and inspiration of the music. I particularly liked the balance between orchestra and voices, the latter given a larger-than-life presence that’s very cinematic. Riccardo Chailly has recorded a version for orchestra alone (Decca), but this Delos one is altogether more engaging. Also, there’s a strength of narrative, and an ease of invention, that reminds me of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges and Janáček’s Cunning little vixen. This is Shostakovich at his most disarming and delightful.

Nay-sayers will insist these scores underline the inherent vulgarity of this composer’s œuvre – their loss. DSCH fans will have this disc on their shelves already; newbies will find much to enjoy here too.

Dan Morgan

Shostakovich at his most disarming, rasping and delightful.