One of the towering figures of 20th century music,
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75) requires no introduction. His film music - much
of which has been performed in concert suites - is highly regarded, along with
his symphonic and other works. Rather like Vaughan Williams and Walton, or Copland,
he is regarded chiefly as a serious composer whose film scores are an important
addition to his canon of work, thus avoiding the scorn often dished out to those
who lived by film scoring alone.
This CD, which offers a premiere recording of The
Fall of Berlin and a first complete version of The Unforgettable Year
1919, makes a welcome and important addition to the existing discography.
Shostakovich was ideally suited to the craft of film
scoring: not only did he start his professional life as a pianist playing for
the silent cinema but he was also naturally endowed with great musically descriptive
powers. Often, while listening to this release, I imagined it as the accompaniment
to a silent movie, so vivid is the musical imagery.
The fact that each cue here is logical and complete
in itself is highly satisfying - no abrupt endings or fade-outs and no "Mickey-Mousing"
cues whatsoever. The scores are held together by the appropriate use of leitmotivs.
The Fall of Berlin (1949) concerns itself with WWII, in particular as experienced
by a Russian steel worker, Alyosha, whose romance with Natasha is broken up
by the outbreak of battle. He takes up arms and battles all the way to Berlin,
where Hitler's last moments are depicted and the Reichstag falls to the Soviet
forces. It is, of course, a pure propaganda exercise and for a just cause in
this case. Nevertheless, one of the first casualties of propaganda is truth
and the sublime benevolence of "Stalin's Garden", may turn a few stomachs
when it is remembered just what a butcher Stalin was. (Perhaps, too, this was
not a comfortable exercise for Shostakovich, so often at odds with the authorities).
Apart from that cue, and despite the grim nature of the subject matter, there
is a great deal of serene and beautiful music throughout the score, such as
track 3 ("Alyosha by the river") and the first part of track 5 ("Alyosha
and Natasha in the Fields"). The need for a romantic subplot was not lost
on the Soviet authorities, who understood that their propaganda still had to
be couched in human terms. Much of the music is, of course, heroic and necessarily
optimistic in mood, never more so than in the imperious opening, where fanfares
and chorales for brass herald the grandeur of the drama to come. There is also
a witty parody (track 6: "Hitler's reception"), in which the tyrant's
pomposity is brilliantly lampooned.
The sombre tragedy and desolation of track 7 - "In
the devastated village", remind us of the horrors of war, while track 12
- "The flooding of the underground station" brilliantly depicts panic
and mayhem. The rather brief track 8 - " Forward!!" - may raise a
few smiles, as it sounds like a blueprint for so many of John Williams' action
and adventure cues (even though Korngold is the more typically cited influence).
Those familiar with Shostakovich's warlike, militaristic
music will know just what to expect from the score's combative moments, where
strident brass and side drums propel the music forwards with inexorable momentum.
On a slightly negative note, I found the almost uninterrupted
succession of six cues (10, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 - the finale) which end with
resounding triumphalism a little wearying. Each sounds as if it is the conclusion,
making it difficult to gather oneself together again for another high point.
This may work perfectly in the context of the film itself but one presumes that,
in the case of a suite being publicly performed, a judicious choice would need
to be made.
The Unforgettable Year 1919 was yet another propaganda exercise, this time concerned
with the civil war which gripped Petrograd in October of that year. Once again,
of course, Stalin receives the whitewash treatment (though for the last time
in such unequivocal fashion, according to the liner notes).
This score seems rather less successful that its
predecessor, in that there is too little drama and grit for the subject matter.
The Hollywood-style mini piano concerto (track 21), composed to accompany "The
Assault on the Red Hill" is ( as the liner notes concede ) "out of
place" and totally absurd in its context. It is a kind of Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff
pastiche, far more reminiscent of a romantic ballet score than a war film. Only
in the Finale (track 23) does a true sense of drama inform the music and hint
at the concerns of the narrative.
One further point of interest is that the brass fanfare
heard at the outset, during the score and again at the end, sounds like a further
blueprint for some of John Williams' "Star Wars" and "Superman"
style of writing. Moreover, Benjamin Frankel appears to quote a part of the
fanfare quite literally in his "Battle of the Bulge" score (a sly
acknowledgement of the crucial Soviet contribution toWW2 - though not the film's
subject this time - or just a coincidence?). As it happens, it is already, in
itself, a quotation from Brahms' Piano Concerto in B flat major, Op.78 (the
horn theme which opens the first movement), though this was probably unintended.
The performances are mainly impressive (and the sound
of pleasingly warm ambience), with Adriano demonstrating a fine affinity with
the music. Here and there, the intonation might be a little better and at least
two irritating glitches slipped by the editors (about a minute into track 11,
where the horns suffer a mishap and again at 1:14 on track 19) but, overall,
the playing is polished and expressive, with some impressively judged dynamics.
The liner notes, written by the conductor, are informative and interesting.