SHOSTAKOVICH: The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda, op 36. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District Symphonic Suite, op. 29a.
Dmitri Beloselsky (Balda); Fyodor Bakanov (Imp); Sergei Balashov & Dmitri Stepanovich (Priest); Dmitri Ulyanov (Devil); Moscow State Chamber Choir; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
DG B0006507-02 () (DDD) TT: 61:42
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What with competing integral recordings of the symphonies and string quartets, Dmitri Shostakovich's film and incidental music remains probably the least-known area of his output. Nevertheless, during his life, this kind of work provided his steadiest source of income. During those periods of non-personhood in the Stalinist state, when official commissions for symphonic, operatic, and chamber scores suddenly stopped (to resume immediately once Stalin decided the composer wasn't a threat after all), Shostakovich managed to keep himself and his family going with films and stage productions.

Shostakovich got into one of his earliest scrapes with the Soviet government over his 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a story by Leskov. Most know how Stalin and his entourage walked out on the opera before the final scene, how the Party press attacked Shostakovich the next day, Shostakovich's withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony (not heard until 1961), and the composer's eventual "rehabilitation" into the good graces of the Party with the appearance of his Fifth. Most importantly, it marks the end of the Soviet avant-garde and the ushering in of the mostly-dismal Socialist Realism doctrine, so vague and so shabby a cover for governmental bullying and worse. However, we lose the details in the larger view. Lady Macbeth began as a smash hit, not only with ticket-buyers, but with party officials as well, and maintained this status for almost three years. Its initial success encouraged Shostakovich to begin an orchestral suite of some of the interludes. Of course, the crackdown put paid to that. We now have a collection of three interludes, lasting a total of seven minutes. It doesn't, obviously, take the place of the full opera, one of the most powerful of the Modern period, but, if you don't know the opera, these orchestral interludes might encourage you to plunge into the whole thing. The suite emphasizes the rackety, satiric aspects of the score, however, and misses the more profound, affecting parts. Who knows what Shostakovich might have done with the suite, had the opera not been suppressed?

Shostakovich complained about film work in the same way most composers do. He wanted to be in on the film from the beginning, and he wanted time to write well, as opposed to the standard practice (not just in Hollywood) of bringing the composer in at the last moment and giving him three weeks to produce a score. So in 1933 when the Soviet animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky approached Shostakovich to provide the music for an as-yet uncreated cartoon, the composer leapt at the chance. Tsekhanovsky was known for creating films to pre-existent scores. I happen to be a big fan of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, but I have to admit that they're generally not as ambitious as those of eastern Europe (though usually vastly more entertaining). American cartoons are grounded in vaudeville, movies, and radio. European cartoons generally have literary ambitions and sources. The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda comes from Pushkin, a folk-like tale about a miserly priest who tries to cheat his superhuman serf, Balda, and gets bested in the end. You can see where this story would appeal to a Soviet artist. Shostakovich produced a complete score to Tsekhanovsky's scenario, but the director only managed to finish the first part of the cartoon, mostly because of political difficulties of his own. Since the composer got into his Lady Macbeth trouble in 1936, the music here still belongs to his Soviet avant-garde period. The music is heavily satiric, in Shostakovich's Age of Gold manner, and emphasizes woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The score basically went into a drawer until the composer's widow rescued it and handed it over to a Shostakovich pupil, Vadim Bibergan, for completion. Actually, "completion" is a mild term for what Bibergan did, since the score disappeared during World War II. The widow Shostakovich had found the composer's original sketches. Bibergan did his work very well indeed, since the music sounds absolutely untampered-with, exactly like Shostakovich himself. Many Shostakovich scholars disagree with me, of course, but I think the score a masterpiece. The rap against it is that it's not the Tenth Symphony, something you'd think obvious. But of course not every masterpiece needs to aspire to monumentality, as Mozart and Haydn show time and time again. If Balda has a fault, it's that it gives you little relief from the hellzapoppin' satire. Most of it clatters and rushes breathlessly. Nevertheless, it's enormously winning. I wish they could have finished the film.
Thomas Sanderling does wonderfully with a high-spirited, vigorous performance, dipped in just the right amount of acid. The singers strike a fine balance between horseplay and folk singing.


S.G.S. (July 2007)