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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

Shostakovich Odds and Ends

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 27 Feb 2006 05:43:28 -0800

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     Dmitri Shostakovich

*  Jazz Suite No. 2
*  Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Themes
*  Jazz Suite No. 1
*  Novorossijsk Chimes
*  Festive Overture
*  The Bolt Ballet Suite
*  The Limpid Stream Ballet Suite
*  The Golden Age Ballet Suite
*  Hamlet Suite
*  Gadfly Suite

National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Brilliant Classics 6735 Total time: 178:44 (3 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Decent performances, but mostly you can
do as well or better elsewhere.

This CD brings together a hodgepodge of Shostakovich more-or-less minor
work with some majors thrown in just to confuse things.

Shostakovich wrote the Jazz Suites for state-sponsored jazz bands. 
Of the two, the first is the more conspicuously successful.  It should
remind listeners of Weill's Dreigroschenoper music, rather than of Louis
Armstrong.  In short, the Soviets, like most Europeans, at that point
had little idea what jazz was.  Nevertheless, the suite has Weill's
sardonic sting.  One encounters problems with the second suite and
hesitates to judge it.  Apparently, Shostakovich's own score was lost,
and in 2000 or thereabouts someone decided to orchestrate the piano
version.  The result sounds like a Palm Court orchestra, without the
bite of the first suite.  Better scoring would help the work, although
I can't say how much.

The Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Themes is decent enough, but
forgettable.  It's also quite Rimskyan, especially the opening -- a kind
of Kirghiz Easter Overture.  I fault it mainly for an over-reliance on
repetition, to the weakening of the architecture.  Novorossijsk Chimes
(great title!) sets a patriotic hymn.  With the exception of an opening
for solo celesta, anybody could have written it.  It sounds like it came
from a last-minute directive from the Ministry of Culture.

The Festive Overture, on the other hand, really did arise from an
official commission for some sort of international conference sponsored
by the Soviets, who were big on such things.  I had read various writers
who judged it another bit of hackwork from the comoser to keep the Party
happy, but then I heard a terrific performance by Karel Ancerl and the
Czech Philharmonic (still available on EMI Classics 75091).  Ancerl made
me believe the work was a masterpiece.  Kuchar unfortunately doesn't
reach that level.  In his hands, it's a breathless, light score, no
better and no worse than lots of others.  The strings often have trouble
keeping the mile-a- minute tempo Kuchar sets, and the brass lack punch
and weight.  This reading might make you believe the nay-sayers.

The ballet suites from The Bolt and The Golden Age (known better in
this country as The Age of Gold) are among Shostakovich's strongest
works.  Not so The Limpid Stream, although again what we have is
orchestration by another hand, since the original score was lost in the
Lady Macbeth debacle.  In its brief life, the ballet did enjoy an immense
success before the Soviet censors expunged it from public performance
and memory, so again you really hesitate to judge Shostakovich.  But you
can judge what you have before you, a bland glob of eminently forgettable
knock-off Romanticism, perhaps by one of Tchaikovsky's or Grieg's lesser
imitators.  Very little in the music as we have it says "Shostakovich."

The Age of Gold and The Bolt (from 1934 and 1935, respectively) still
belong to that heady era of Soviet Modernism, like Shostakovich's first
symphony and piano concerto.  The Bolt shows the composer as cheeky
parodist, beginning with a stripped-down version of the opening to the
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.  4.  Along the way, we encounter a sassy polka
interrupted by protracted orchestral razzberries, a blustery march,
a gypsy tango that can't decide whether it wants to stay a tango, an
"Intermezzo" that sideslips through harmonies as adroitly as Prokofiev,
and a wild-eyed finale.  The liner notes talk of this work as a Russian
answer to Satie and Les Six, and you take the point.  The Age of Gold,
however, represents pure Shostakovich -- particularly, the sarcastic
and grotesque side.  It's a terrifically-composed work, evident in the
"Overture" which opens the ballet, where scurrying lines seem to enter
from all directions at once, like spiraling squibs.  The odd movement
out is the melancholy "Adagio." Indeed, comparing the movement with its
counterpart in The Limpid Stream proves instructive.  It runs longer
seems shorter.  It wouldn't have disgraced a symphony like the composer's
ninth or fifteenth.  It's *composed*, whereas its brother comes across
with all the forethought of one long, comfortable musical belch.

Shostakovich, like many Soviet artists, got excited over the new
medium of film.  He turned out quite a few film scores.  For another
thing, during his periods of official disgrace, films remained open to
him and thus provided necessary income.  Even Soviet artists needed cash,
something that first struck me as a novel idea, having gotten the notion
that the State's invisible hands supplied their wants and needs.  The
films -- and the film music -- vary in quality.  The Gadfly, a Soviet
bodice-ripper, concerns an Italian freedom-fighter underground in
turn-of-the-century Vienna (oy!), with bits of A Tale of Two Cities
thrown in.  Obviously, it's tosh, and you wouldn't want the sarcasm of
The Age of Gold to destroy the illusion that the film is worth your time.
You could fairly describe the score as Shostakovich Goes Hollywood, but
it's superior Hollywood, with echoes of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake flitting
through here and there.  Nevertheless, it also contains a good deal of
real Shostakovich, although one softened a bit and minding his manners,
for the most part.

On the other hand, Hamlet, from 1964, adorns a really good film and
stands among the composer's best work.  Shostakovich had done incidental
music for a Keystone-Kops stage production in the early thirties, pretty
much in the style of The Bolt and The Age of Gold.  Jorge Mester and the
Louisville Orchestra recorded this some time, I believe, in the Seventies.
The film score is something other, from the same harrowing sound-world
of the thirteenth and fourteenth symphonies.  The music is strong enough
to blister paint, taking on the darkness of the film itself.  The film
looks like Grendel waits around the corner to tear your head off and
suck your bones.  By way of contrast, some lighter dances find their way
into the score, but they just give you time to rest your ears and psyche
before the next onslaught.  Even the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia
give you the wounds to vitiate any surface tenderness or sentiment.  All
in all, a powerful score, fully worthy of the play.  In fact, the music
is so good, that you'd probably want it complete, available on Naxos
8.557446.

Kuchar and the Ukrainians do best in the better music: the first
Jazz Suite, The Bolt, The Age of Gold, and Hamlet.  Most of their other
performances are at least decent.  Nevertheless, they don't add all that
much to determinedly minor work, and I say again that the Festive Overture
disappoints.  However, the release has two things going for it --
generosity and price -- that may attract some who want a triple helping
of Shostakovich for less than the cost of one full-price CD.

Steve Schwartz

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