Odna (Alone) [UK premiere screening]

Film made by Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev, with music by Dmitri Shostakovich

Irina Mataeva (soprano)
Anna Kiknadze (mezzo-soprano)
Dmitri Voropaev (tenor)
Mark van Tongeren (throat singer)

Apollo Voices

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Mark Fitz-Gerald

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Shostakovich’s centenary year will bring no more enterprising event than the UK premiere of the film “Odna” (Alone, 1929-31), accompanied by his complete orchestral score for it. Written in 1929 and 1930, Odna was Shostakovich’s second such venture and his second with the film-making partnership of Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev. Their first, in 1928, had resulted in the “New Babylon” – a late highpoint in Soviet silent-film whose symphonically conceived score was problematic in performance but whose artistic success prompted this further collaboration: a pivotal film at the point where the silent screen yielded to that of sound.

“Odna” focuses on the person of Yelena Kuzmina (the name of both the character and the actress), a newly graduated teacher from Leningrad who finds herself posted to the Altai region of Russian Mongolia. There she encounters resistance both from the Kulak (landed) farmers who resent her attempts to educate children instead of their tending the flocks and also the Soviet representative intent on the illegal sale of animals at the expense of the people. Abandoned by a trader at a frozen lake, Kuzmina is left to die – only to be rescued just in time by the villagers who appoint a new Soviet leader and proclaim their loyalty to Soviet ideals as the heroine is flown for treatment in Novisibirsk.

Outwardly, then, “Odna” conforms to the Sovietization of agriculture recently launched under the aegis of Stalin’s first ‘Five Year Plan’; indeed, the film was well received at home and abroad following its release in 1931 and for several years thereafter. Even at the height of Stalinist terror, it was strongly criticised but never blacklisted. The siege of Leningrad during the early 1940s saw the film studios substantially destroyed by fire – though six out of the film’s seven reels survived, and Shostakovich’s score had been reassembled over the past two decades to enable a full presentation of the music.

One can understand just why the increasingly paranoid authorities harboured reservations over the film. Quite apart from the direct implication of corruption in the Soviet administration, the scenario treats Kuzmina not merely as a cipher of change in the USSR but as a living and breathing identity whose personality is not always in accord with the society around her: in short, a person capable of a ‘subversive individualism’ as soon became anathema to the Soviet authorities. Both directors and the composer attach overriding importance to her personality as the means of securing an audience’s sympathy: whether with her plight in itself or in the sense of one person against the rest – typified by the presence of a brief song, “How happy our days shall be!”, which is first heard when in the company of her boyfriend and then as reminders of this happiness following her dramatic change in circumstances.

For their part Trauberg and Kozintsev created a film that brims over with striking and memorable imagery – above all, that of the suspended horse skin representing the ‘old ways’ among the Altai people, which is decisively countered by the sight of the aeroplane juxtaposed against it at the close. Typical of Soviet silent cinema are the close-ups of human gestures and expressions of feeling; while typical of Russian cinema is the suspension of action so that the movement within a single ‘static’ perspective can assert its own inner dynamism.

For his part, Shostakovich furnished a score replete with the exuberance of his early theatre music; but also an intensity frequently achieved through his reducing the large orchestra down to a mere handful of musicians, playing at extremes of dynamic or register; also the deployment of devices such as a throat-singer and the recently invented theremin – its unworldly glissandos reserved for Kuzmina’s abandonment (ironically, the portion taken up by the missing reel, though the music – suitably captioned – gives a good idea of what is being portrayed).

The present showing came about through the perseverance of Mark Fitz-Gerald in tracking down and piecing together the variously distributed components of the score so a complete and synchronised presentation of film and music was then possible. Although made with certain elements of sound in place, most of which are retained here, “Odna” is essentially a silent film and so benefits from the live performance of its score as here. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, which seemed to be enjoying this rare excursion into live cinema, was expertly guided by Fitz-Gerald (a protégé of Norman Del Mar whose realisation of the score to “New Babylon” has become the standard edition, and who enjoys a far higher profile in Europe than here) through a process that is itself shot-through with potential hazards of mistiming. The brief vocal (by singers from the Mariinsky Theatre) and choral contributions were all well taken.

Hopefully, this (almost!) fully restored edition of “Odna” will now find its way onto DVD, enabling a major work of early Soviet cinema to reclaim something of the success that it enjoyed on its first release.

  • Concert recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3

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