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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Ovod (The Gadfly) Op. 97 - complete original film score (1955) [52:28]
The Counterplan Op. 33 - excerpts (1932) [9:18]
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Bachchor Mainz/Mark Fitz-Gerald
rec. Philharmonie Ludwigshafen, Germany, 2017
NAXOS 8.573747[61:46]

Shostakovich wrote film music throughout his career. Beginning with New Babylon in 1929 and ending with King Lear in 1970, Shostakovich supplemented his income by providing some thirty-six movies with music. He wrote quickly, often producing music of considerable interest, although we do not know his movie music very well. In the case of The Gadfly, Shostakovich filled in for an ailing Khachaturian, completing the project in a month.

The Gadfly is a melodrama based upon an English-language novel by Ethyl Voynich (1864-1960). This anticlerical tale of intrigue and rebellion is set in the period of the Italian struggle to drive the Austrians from Northern Italy. The Gadfly is Arthur, an English Catholic who joins the Italian resistance to Austrian rule, while romancing the radical Gemma. Arthur is executed at the end of the book, but not before revealing that the pro-Austrian Cardinal is actually his father. Much intrigue links these events, suggesting echoes of such nineteenth century favourites as Dumas’ Count of Monte Christo or Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Little-known in the West, The Gadfly was very popular in Russia, where over two million copies were published. Russian composers have written three operas and two ballets on The Gadfly, and there are at least two film versions beyond Shostakovich’s, which was directed by Alexandr Faintsimmer.

A Russian astronomer named an asteroid in honour of The Gadfly’s author, Ethyl Voynich, who was the daughter of the George Boole (of logic fame) and the wife of America-based antiquarian book-dealer Wilfrid Voynich (whose name identifies a notoriously bizarre Fifteenth Century illuminated manuscript). There is a video on YouTube of Bolshoi artists bringing flowers to Voynich in her New York apartment on her 95th birthday, in 1959.

Shostakovich’s soundtrack contains several memorable moments, often with brilliant orchestration. The romantic “Youth” melody is full of yearning, the Galop bounces along nicely, and the Marketplace theme (here called “Bazar”) is irresistible. Some moments are less distinguished, and, like much movie music, seem episodic and underdeveloped.

Shostakovich authorized a concert suite of the best parts, which was assembled by Levon Atovmian (1901-1973), a Bolshoi-based composer. In arranging The Gadfly, Atovmian re-ordered many of its pieces, and added some connecting passages of his own. Shostakovich was apparently satisfied with the result, as he invited Atovmian to make a suite from his 1964 music for Hamlet. Atovmian also prepared piano versions of Shostakovich’s symphonies 7 and 8, and edited Prokofiev’s piano sonatas.

Missing from Atovmian’s suite are “Guitars,” a gently flowing duet, and a pair of delightfully demento marches, one of the Church in support of the Austrians, the other a nastier burst of martial music for the Austrian army. There are four brief organ pieces (two of which were never included in the film’s soundtrack), and the Dona nobis pacem from Bach’s B minor Mass. Atovmian eliminated church bells, organ, and guitars from the orchestration, presumably in order to encourage performances.

Mark Fitz-Gerald has recorded other Shostakovich film scores, including Odna (Alone), New Babylon, and Podrugi (the Girlfriends), which generally have been well-received. Fitz-Gerald’s doggedness in reconstructing this almost lost music and making it widely available is admirable. If you need to hear every last note written by Shostakovich, then by all means add this disc to your collection. Unfortunately, the performance is tepid and uninspiring. The Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz seems tentative and perhaps under-rehearsed. Fitz-Gerald conducts with low energy, failing to show Shostakovich’s music to its advantage.

There is vastly more vigour in Theodore Kuchar’s performance of the Suite with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra, which is also more clearly recorded by Naxos, even without church bells. Better yet is Riccardo Chailly’s version of the suite with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Decca, which adds two movements excluded by Atovmian. Chailly offers 32 minutes of the Gadfly, Kuchar 44, and Fitz-Gerald 52. If you are curious about Shostakovich’s organ music for film, Fitz-Gerald is the only way to scratch that itch.

The current disc also includes three movements from the 1933 film, the Counterplan. Here again, turn first to Chailly, this time with the Concertgebouw.

Richard Kraus
Previous reviews: Nick Barnard ~ Dan Morgan

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