It would usually be a pleasure to review a recording
of vintage film scores – to relive through music a wonderful movie or two of
yesteryear - and whilst it remains a pleasure to review this stunning new recording
of a number of early Dmitri Shostakovich film works there is no feeling of nostalgia,
or even of recognition, as all the movies are unknown to me! Yes, I know,
the Maxim trilogy has aired at art houses throughout the world, and I should
have got off my bum and made the effort to see these venerated films – and yes,
I do know Shakespeare's "King Lear", right down to the foot notes
and stage directions, but the Russian film featured here has eluded me. And
I may perhaps be forgiven for not being familiar with The Man With A Gun
and A Girl Alone. But never mind. The music is the thing. And that
As might be expected, dating from the Thirties, the
music from the Maxim trilogy initially exudes political fervour, with orchestra
and chorus immediately extolling (Soviet) camaraderie and making a powerful
play for our emotions. Goodness - the ploy works – after hearing this I almost
singed up to the party myself! The remainder of the suite presents an extraordinarily
varied roster of moods – a searing adagio led by cello, a fervent waltz of imperialistic
proportions, and lots of thunderous "storming the barricades" stuff
which instantly and irrevocably sends most current Hollywood action music straight
to the doghouse. Thrilling.
The scoring of Man With A Gun is no less nationalistic
– or militaristic - the subject being Lenin – and the October revolution. Shostakovich
ably waves the flag of folk song and sets to storming yet more barricades.
Goodness, thrilling too …!
A Girl Alone permits a change of pace – and locale – and musical style
- as the film tells the tale of a Leningrad teacher despatched to a remote rural
village in Altai. In the main the scoring is chamber-orientated, with small
select ensembles deployed to extraordinary effect. There is a real sense of
the composer experimenting with orchestral colour, and geography is succinctly
suggested, the music artfully illustrating a harsh landscape. No barricades
to be stormed here … but sheep to be herded and huts to be tended. This is
music of unusual and prodigious invention.
That tragedy is the hallmark of King Lear
is emphasised by Shostakovich in no uncertain terms. His scoring here is grim-visaged,
and immediately engages a dark brooding power accentuated by a series of adagio
portraits only momentarily relieved by the rousing yet still bleak storm music.
A sterling exercise in melancholia.
There has been much discussion over the years about
whether conductors of the same ethnic origin as the repertoire bring some additional
understanding or insight to the performance of the music. Well, I don't know
whether a conductor of any other nationality could have done better than the
Russian Vassily Sinaisky has with this recording – but I rather think not, as
his readings excite and move and impress to a momentous degree. And The BBC
Philharmonic play with a passion which is stratospheric - at one moment peaking
on the Richter scale, and at others delicately balanced to etch the merest of
orchestral hues. In this they are aided by a superlative recording, set in
an expansive acoustic that serves the composer's most demonstrative passages
well, yet still sufficiently detailed to indicate the subtlest of instrumental
signatures. Happily over the years there have been a number of recordings
of Shostakovich film music, but this album, in repertoire, performance, and
in recording celebrates a particular high-point.