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
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
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
before the final scene, how the Party press attacked Shostakovich the
next day, Shostakovich's withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony (not heard
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)