Irinia Mataeva (soprano), Anna Kiknadze (mezzo), Dmitry Voropaev (tenor), Mark van Tongeren (overtone singer), Barbara Buchholz (theremin), Vokalensemble der HMDK Frankfurt, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Fitz-Gerald.
Naxos 8.570316 (B) (DDD) TT: 79:56

Naxos and its sister label Marco Polo have done a splendid job bringing to notice film scores by classical composers, as opposed to studio composers, although the distinction isn't always hard and fast. Accordingly, we have Auric's La Belle et la Bête, Frankel's Curse of the Werewolf, Honegger's Les Miserables, as well as scores by Shostakovich, Ibert, Dessau, Korngold, Shostakovich, Herrmann, Korngold, and Waxman.

Shostakovich wrote film music for money, yes, but also because the medium interested him. His first big score, for the picture New Babylon, ran into trouble. He had conceived of the music in large, symphonic blocks. When the Soviet censors demanded certain cuts, he had a devil of a time refitting the music back into the film. For Odna (1929-31), he cannily composed snippets, averaging about a minute long. In this case, the difficulty became the then-primitive state of film sound world-wide and the problems with even more primitive Soviet sound synchronization technology. The film, essentially a silent, curiously blended sound effects and music, much like the Hollywood release of Barrymore's Don Juan (1926). Shostakovich, despite his pleasure in the orchestra and the conductor, hated the quality of the finished soundtrack.

Knowing Shostakovich's later scores like Hamlet, King Lear, and even The Fall of Berlin, one can see him serving an apprenticeship in Odna. He's a great composer, of course, but not necessarily a great film composer. The film itself I suspect is a dog, and the plot the dog's breakfast -- a ragout of romance, musical-comedy, social earnestness, and cowboys and Indians. Outside of work by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko, one finds very few good Soviet films during the Stalin era. A young teacher gets sent from an idyllic life in Leningrad to the back of the beyond, in the Altai mountains, near the Mongolian border. She attempts to teach the children but runs into opposition from the locals, who want the kids to tend to the sheep. When she threatens to report them, the tribesmen plot her murder. She's left to die in a snowdrift, but makes it to shelter, where she's still deathly ill. At this point, the tribesmen (and the local Party official, by the way) plan her funeral, but -- ta-da! -- the cavalry arrives in the form of a Soviet airplane (how anybody outside the village knows to send one seems to me a hole in the plot) which flies her to safety. Another victory for the Glorious Motherland! What happens to the kids is left up in the air.

Shostakovich writes some very interesting music, including evocative work for piccolo and bassoon and for theremin. However, it doesn't seem to be film music. One hesitates to say this without having seen the film, but it doesn't sound as if it moves in the right way, as Prokofiev's film music always does. It's pretty square, rhythmically. Some of it sounds like music that accompanies the villain tying the heroine to the railroad tracks -- in other words, the kind of music films had grown out of long before. It may have been the film itself, and Shostakovich got more film-wise as he went along.

Mark Fitz-Gerald reconstructed the score from published sources, composer manuscripts, and the film soundtrack, although an important reel had been lost. Any mature work by Shostakovich is welcome, but outside of a CD it probably will have little life. I can't imagine it being performed in a concert hall -- it has close to fifty mini-movements -- although Fitzgerald has done exactly that. He leads a very fine performance in very fine sound.

S.G.S. (April 2008)