Shostakovich: New Babylon, A Year Is Like A Lifetime

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SHOSTAKOVICH New Babylon. A Year Is like a Lifetime Frank Strobel, cond; Kai Adomeit (pn); Southwest German RO Kaiserslautern HÄNSSLER 93.188 (2 CDs: 135.49)

New Babylon is not one of Shostakovich’s standard, propagandistic, political potboilers. This is the music of the enfant terrible of Soviet music. Composed in 1928 immediately following his satirical opera, The Nose , the score for the silent film New Babylon reflects Shostakovich’s lifelong fascination with the cinema and his experience as a piano accompanist for silent films. The film’s directors, Grigori Kosintev and Leonid Trauberg, were considered to be avant-garde, if that were possible at the time. New Babylon deals with the rebellion of the Paris commune in 1870–71, with a superimposed tragic love story between a working girl and a bourgeois soldier. Shostakovich had recently completed his brilliant First Symphony, and the directors immediately wanted him to score the film. Shostakovich’s music is laced with dissonance, acerbic wit, bitonality, and flirts with atonality. The composer utilizes numerous fragmentary quotations from sources as disparate as Offenbach, Tchaikovsky, and the Marseillaise.

An abridged Melodiya version conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky was released in 1976 by CBS, and a more-or-less complete recording has been recently available on Capriccio conducted by James Judd. That was the most definitive recording, at least in terms of completeness, prior to the appearance of this one. The program notes state that this complete reconstructed version—including all the music cut from the film—is based on the composer’s personal manuscripts stored in the Glinka museum in Moscow and the orchestral parts and piano score printed for the premiere. The manuscript was edited by the D-S-C-H publishing house and cross-referenced to a proof copy from the composer’s personal estate. In addition, Frank Strobel synchronized the newly edited music with the 1929 premiere version of the film. All of this is not surprising when you consider Strobel’s incredible reconstruction of Prokofiev’s complete score for Alexander Nevsky ( Fanfare 28:3).

There appears to be no reason to doubt the authenticity of this version, but it really doesn’t matter because Strobel’s performance and Hänssler’s sound are superior to the previous Capriccio recording. Capriccio’s soft edged, more distantly miked sound does not serve the music as well as the more brash, brassy, and closely miked sonics on this recording. There is over an hour and a half of outrageous, funky, melodic but gently dissonant music reminiscent of The Nose and his impish ballets. Strobel’s conducting, aided by incisive and dynamic sound, is flamboyant as befits the music. Shostakovich’s bad-boy early style is an acquired taste for some, but if you have any interest in this aspect of Shostakovich’s art, New Babylon will be a treasure.

A Year Is like a Lifetime is an entirely different story, but is not without interest. It begins with three cues featuring straightforward, bombastic statements of the ubiquitous Marseillaise (as opposed to the fragmentary references and variations in New Babylon ), urgent low strings, strident brass, and slashing snare drums. But at the end of the “Intermezzo” a strange thing happens. The music subsides into pianissimo quivering strings and tolling bells from the sound world of the 11th Symphony. Then a 15-minute subdued, atmospheric, and introspective “Farewell” featuring a plaintive French horn solo is clearly the emotional and musical heart of the score. It is followed by a delicious, tongue-in-cheek waltz and a brief reappearance of some faceless battle music. The suite concludes with the horn solo and music of the “Farewell,” now more upbeat in a surprisingly understated way, with wind and brass chords embellished by lush, rising and falling string configurations building to a climax that Golden Age film music fans will love. Thus the noisy bombast offers contrast rather than dominating a score that remains cinematic, but is predominantly subdued and eminently likeable in the style of The Song of the Forests oratorio.

This album is a clear winner in every conceivable way. The music, performance, and sound make it required listening for any adventurous listener interested in the music of Shostakovich beyond the symphonies and string quartets.

FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 93188

  • UPC: 4010276018995

  • Label: SWR Music

  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Conductor: Frank Strobel

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Southwest German Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern

  • Performer: Kai Adomeit