Shostakovich At The Movies

Jazz Suite No.1
New Babylon, Op.18 [excerpt: for Reel 6, Day 49 of the Communard]
Five Fragments, Op.42
The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda, Op.36 [excerpts]
The Bedbug, Op.19 [excerpts]
The Silly Little Mouse, Op.56

Soloists of the Mariinsky Theatre Academy of Young Singers [Anatoly Kuznetzov, vocal coach]:

Irma Gigolashvili & Elena Gorshunova (sopranos)
Elena Sommer (mezzo-soprano)
Mikhail Latyshev (tenor)
Vladimir Tyulpanov (baritone)
Pavel Shmulevich & Eduard Tsanga (basses)

Britten Sinfonia
André de Ridder

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 August, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Despite his broken right-foot – an injury caused when stepping off a podium last week in Belgium – André de Ridder, crutches and all, could not be stopped conducting this enterprising and hugely enjoyable programme of Shostakovich film and stage scores at the Cadogan Hall, the third of this year’s innovative “Proms Saturday Matinees”.

With the highly adaptable Britten Sinfonia (swelling to 40 musicians from the opening Jazz Suite’s quarter of that) and seven young singers from the Mariinsky Academy, the packed audience was treated to examples of Shostakovich’s film (“New Babylon” from 1929) and theatre (“The Bedbug” from the same year) scores, as well as two animations (the uncompleted “The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda”, 1933-4 and “The Silly Little Mouse, 1939) as well as two concert works: the Jazz Suite No.1, in its original scoring for band – no strings, just percussion, piano, saxophones, brass and banjo (with an Hawaiian guitar in the final ‘Foxtrot’ – and the Five Fragments, from the year after the Jazz Suite’s composition, 1935.

Indeed this programme – usefully annotated and introduced from the stage by Soviet film expert, John Riley, who was interviewed by Petroch Trelawny while the stage was elaborately reset between items – uncovered a lesser-known facet of this ten-year period of Shostakovich’s early career (1929 – 1939), which we better know as the period of the condemnation of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony.

As John Riley explained, Shostakovich may have found some security (and steady income) in the burgeoning Soviet film trade (not least as a silent-film pianist), although he pointed out that it could still be a dangerous world: cast and crew of a musical about Stalin, “Volga Volga”, kept on disappearing, dragged off to execution, thus suffering the same fate as most of the characters in the first film excerpt – “New Babylon” about the Paris Communards. Reel 6 shows the events of Day 49, when the troops are sent in, the bourgeoisie watching from a distance applauding the scenes of carnage. At one point one of the leaders of the Communard plays the piano that forms part of the barricade amidst the shooting, Shostakovich’s score dwindling just to the piano (here played by Huw Watkins), before a final, noisy orchestral tirade at the pointlessness of death.

For those in the hall, the performance accompanied a showing of Reel 6 of the film, and the first of four film excerpts at this concert.

The Five Fragments – short and experimental and which had some influence on the Fourth Symphony composed just three months later than the single day, 9 July 1935, that Shostakovich wrote these works – prefaced the first of two cartoons. “The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda” was actually unfinished as a film, its animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky failing to make a final choice between animation or a puppet film, while Shostakovich had produced a score from Tsekhanovsky’s sketches, some of which were shown over the opening music, eventually melding with the completed cartoon of the Bazaar, with hens, ducks and geese as well as market stall-holders all adding to the cacophony, here given voice by the excellent seven singers from the Mariinsky Academy. The look of the cartoon and characters was very distinctive and quite unlike western cartoons and one dearly wished it could have been completed, so we could see the denouement of the down-and-out Balda who had been employed by the Priest actually claiming his payment – punching the Priest three times!

Four excerpts from Shostakovich’s incidental music to Vladimir Myakovsky’s “The Bedbug” followed, as produced in 1929 by Vsevelod Meyerhold. The plot is substantially different for the impossibly daft scenario seen in the ballet recently danced by the Mariinsky’s ballet company at the London Coliseum where, on that occasion, there was no hint of the hero being cryogenically frozen to wake in a Soviet wonderland in 1978, when he is displayed as an archaic louse, explaining (at last!) the title! But all of Shostakovich’s sardonic wit was nicely in place, and we had a UK première to boot – the third movement, ‘The Fire’ (when the 1920s’ wedding is destroyed by conflagration). Here we saw stills of the production team, but nothing as exciting as the image in the programme of the hero displayed as the louse.

Finally we returned to cartoon in a complete film – shown in colour – of Tsekhanovsky’s return to favour, his 1939 film “The Silly Little Mouse”. Simply told, it’s about a young mouse whose mother is unable to get it to sleep. She (obviously!) goes to her neighbour, Auntie Duck, for help, and then when she fails they go to Mrs Pig, and then to both the Toad and the Horse. Finally Mrs Cat is inveigled to try her hand at soothing the little mouse. She, of course, has her own designs on the mouse and, once it is asleep, smuggles it back to her own place, where you can see in the mouse skin hanging over the cooking pot what she intends to do. Thankfully Mrs Mouse discovers her offspring has gone and the whole troupe of animals, with Polkan the Dog wielding his gun, go to rescue the baby mouse.

It was all sung, with the Mariinsky singers returning, for a supremely assured performance of a delightful film, even if watching the cartoon made it impossible to read the text and translation as provided in the programme.

Top marks then for a fantastic concert, brilliantly performed and sung and, perhaps most importantly, hugely informative about Shostakovich.

On 8 November (in the Barbican Hall at 6.30 and 9.00) the London Philharmonic accompanies showings of “New Babylon” using Shostakovich’s full score with Vladimir Jurowski conducting.

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