Shostakovich: New Babylon / Fitz-Gerald, Basel Sinfonietta

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Without doubt this is one of the finest all-round achievements by Naxos.

At the risk of courting the charge of hyperbole I would venture this CD as one of the most significant Shostakovich releases in recent years. Fine though the award-laden Petrenko symphony cycle undoubtedly is, let's be honest we already know that is an extraordinary group of works and most have received superb performances before. The score presented here is as significant as it is relatively unknown and this new recording can lay fair claim to being definitive. My reasoning runs as follows; Shostakovich was one of the most important Soviet composers. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise the power of cinema to influence mass mood and opinion. In the late 1920s the cultural elite of the Soviet Union were still being empowered by the state to produce work that was radical and revolutionary. Exploring utopian ideals and cinema was regarded as being at the forefront of the new radical arts. In the era of Silent Cinema the dedicated film-score was still comparatively new and as such had to carry the dramatic and emotional non-visual weight of the story. Shostakovich had first-hand practical experience of playing for film - this gave him a practitioner’s insight into what would ‘work’ that was simply not part of the skill set of any composer before or probably since. As the liner accurately points out - for all the deprivation and residual violence abroad in the new Soviet State this was an age of idealism and hope. Shostakovich had yet to have his idealistic vision of communism curdled by the cynical realities of living in a totalitarian state. He poured into this score the best that the idiom would allow.
Whether measured by the yardstick of the history of cinema, the Soviet Union or simply as part of the Shostakovich oeuvre this is an important release. Add to that the fact that this recording offers the most complete, skilfully reconstructed and authentic - as far as it uses the original 14 player line-up - rendition of the score yet made. It becomes a compulsory purchase. This is the third release of Shostakovich film scores conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Very fine indeed though the previous two have been I consider this the best so far. Not that the earlier issues lacked for anything in terms of performing or interpretative quality - simply that this work is more significant than the others on just about every level. Its importance is reflected in the fact that elements of the score have been recorded several times in the past although only the - also fine - version from James Judd on Capriccio with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra comes close to matching the actual quantity of music recorded. The next most extended sequence - from Valeri Polyansky and his Russian State Symphony Orchestra on Chandos (CHAN 9600) - contains some 44 minutes of the score - less than half of Fitz-Gerald’s epic traversal. A pithier selection is offered by Gennady Rohzdestvensky (Russian Disc RDCD11064). This was my introduction to this score in its original Melodiya LP version (later reissued as ASD3381) and I still enjoy its ribald cabaret character. My sole observation of this new Naxos performance - and it is an observation not a quibble - is that the chamber scale and super-refined quality of the playing fractionally detracts from the pure theatre of the work. When I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music in London - around 1983 I guess - they staged a viewing of this score accompanied by one of the college orchestras. To this day the power of the film and accompanying score lives with me. I strongly suggest that any readers who ever have the opportunity to see this performed live should leap at the chance. It is a magnificent piece of work and one that shows how even at the tender age of 23 Shostakovich understood the compelling power of the moving image. The very valid argument advanced by Fitz-Gerald for using chamber scale forces is that these are the maximum resources that Shostakovich would have had for the premiere. My counter-argument is that every silent movie score would be written with a degree of inherent elasticity. I find it hard to imagine for a moment that Shostakovich would not have preferred more players at the premiere - certainly many of the dramatic passages in the score do not sound as though they are intended for such a chamber group. That being said, Shostakovich was commissioned to provide a smaller orchestration suitable for use in the bulk of Soviet cinemas. Indeed reluctant musical directors often reverted to using generic music when the film was shown rather than attempting the complexities of this new score.
Every other recording has opted for a full standard orchestra. Although I do naturally veer towards the bigger sound the more I hear this performance the more I realise that this is a score full of proper music of considerable range and power. Initial impressions are of a riot of colour and witty referencing of popular period tunes from the Marseillaise to Offenbach. The New Babylon of the title refers to a department store which in turn is a metaphor for the decadent Paris pre the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The ensuing uprising and short-lived Paris Commune provided the early Soviet State with a historic precedent for their own revolution. Lessons learnt from the failure of the Commune influenced the thinking of both Marx and Lenin. Musical experts differ on whether Shostakovich used these melodies because they embodied all things despicably bourgeois or simply because they are rather good tunes. I tend towards the latter opinion - any young composer who can choose as his first dramatic work a setting of Gogol - The Nose - with its dyspeptic view of authority and institutions is not going to become a star-struck-slogan-wielding-party-line-puller two opus numbers later. At the heart of Shostakovich’s abiding genius is the acidic cynicism that clots and curdles even his most superficially benign music.
Fitz-Gerald conducts the Basel Sinfonietta and they prove to be stunningly fine collaborators. The scoring is for a string quartet plus bass, a woodwind quintet and a brass group of a second horn, two trumpets - although the second is there simply to relieve the work-load on the first player rather than having an independent part - and a trombone. The line-up is completed by a piano and three percussion. Again this number allows for ease of changes rather than necessity. The use of this essentially chamber ensemble creates an aural world that instantly delineates the composer's deft scoring. For the first time I heard a positively Gallic wit at work, very much along the lines of Ibert's Divertissement although, as always with Shostakovich, you feel a bleak cold despair might be lingering in the shadows. The spirit of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" clouds the celebrations. Another fascinating characteristic is developed here by the composer. In collaboration with the film-makers Shostakovich chose not to "illustrate the frame". When critics wish to deride a work the ultimate insult is to say its sounds like film music. This is a short-hand for saying it treats emotions/ideas/situations in an obvious and direct manner - in other words it illustrates the frame. Shostakovich does the reverse - if the image is happy, the music is sad, epic - petty. Its a crazy almost anarchic ploy but one that makes for an extraordinarily powerful juxtaposition of sight and sound. The problem we have here is that we are divorced from the image and wonderful though that is it cannot be anything less than a fraction of the whole.
Across the two discs the music is presented as a continuous flow of music as it occurred in each of the film's eight reels. The abiding impression is of a kaleidoscopic riot of sounds and impressions, fragments of musical stories, passing characters and changing mood. There is a hedonistic delight in the sheer indulgence of influence and pastiche. No real surprise to read that the original score quickly fell into disuse - it was both too hard for the average cinema player and too subversive for musicians brought up on a diet of illustrative generic music and excerpted 'classics'. From a historical perspective the quite remarkable thing is that as late as his Op.145 - his Suite on verses by Michaelangelo Shostakovich was applying exactly the same principle of contrast. There a verse with the slightly daunting title Immortality is set to an accompaniment of a piccolo whistling a tune any paperboy would be proud of. Back with New Babylon Fitz-Gerald has more practical experience of conducting this score in context with the film than any other person. This deep knowledge converts into a performance that is perfectly paced and remarkably finds a unity, a through-line in the midst of the mayhem. Allied to the virtuosic playing of his Swiss Orchestra and you will appreciate the level of achievement. The superlatives do not stop there. The engineering is first rate. The sound is quite close, certainly very detailed but it treads the tricky narrow line between large chamber group or small orchestra. The scale of the group is very effectively caught allowing the intimate passages to beguile while the bigger sequences have an impressive impact. Yes I do miss the sheer extra weight that Judd is able to deploy or the uniquely sly and sarcastic Rozhdestvensky. I repeat, the more I listened the more I was converted to the style of this version.

The booklet is surely Naxos' finest yet. Once one gets past the obligatory I-need-to-get-my-eyes-tested minute font this is packed with fascinating information, film stills and even a facsimile page of the original score. Fitz-Gerald has had to reconstruct the final part of the final reel because late in the film's production the ending changed turning the original bleak ending into something more positive. Fascinatingly we have two essays by Shostakovich scholars which give different interpretations for this change. One by David Robinson feels the changes were artistically driven whilst the other by John Riley cites political expediency. Both are full of fascinating insights. Riley provides a detailed synopsis and the notes are completed by an article by Fitz-Gerald outlining the long overdue restoration and reappraisal of this very important score. Don’t listen to this score expecting the profundity of the composer’s greatest work - that was never the remit here. Treated as a musico-social document - as well as containing much wonderfully entertaining music - this is a magnificent achievement from all concerned from composer to performers and the production team.

Curiously for a disc that is literally definitive it does not make me want to throw away either of the two other versions I cherish. Both Judd and Rozhdestvensky in their very differing ways offer valid alternative insights into this box of delights of a score. Judd with his full orchestra gains in impact during the set-piece sequences whilst Rozhdestvensky benefits from an authentically edgy Russian sound and gleeful eccentricity that is quite wonderful. The extra music that has been constructed to cover the discarded ending is effective and suitable but you will have made your mind up about this score and the performance way before that final sequence is reached. Fitz-Gerald achieves an ideal balance with his super-slick players able to slip from queasy waltz to buffoon’s gallop or poignant interlude in an instant. Remarkable results are achieved by ensembles these days in hot-house conditions of read/record. However when you hear a well rehearsed, convincingly argued performance of music with which the players are familiar the benefits are both obvious and great.

Without doubt this is one of the finest all-round achievements by Naxos. 

– Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572824-25

  • UPC: 747313282470

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Conductor: Mark Fitz-Gerald

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Basel Sinfonietta