Golden Mountains, suite Op. 30a (1931/36)
Maxim Trilogy (Vyborg District), suite 50a (1934-5/1936-7/1938/1961)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir cond. Mikhail Jurowski
Capriccio 10561 [56:18/DDD]
Soja (Zoya), suite Op. 64a (1944)
The Fall of Berlin, suite 82a (1949)
German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin cond. Mikhail Jurowski
Capriccio 10405 [61:46/DDD]
During the 1980s, when Western critics were still struggling to interpret Shostakovich as a "populist" and part-time "propagandist" for Communism, his film music was seen as a sincere body of work earnestly created by a Soviet believer in the People's art of cinema. Not to be outdone in earnestness, such writers bent over backwards to take Shostakovich's film music seriously, despite the fact that he wrote most of it under various forms of duress, and that consequently 90% of it is rubbish.
Shostakovich's interest in cinema was genuine but discriminating. He did not, for example, relish writing music for such Stalin hagiographies as Mikhail Chiaureli's The Fall of Berlin - but he had no choice. At several points in his career (notably after his public denunciations in 1936 and 1948), cinema work was virtually all he could get. Even passing moments of uncertainty would find him hiding in the neutral territory of the film score, churning out accompaniments to patriotic battles and heroic posturings from all periods of Russian history. Most of this music consists of bombastic ceremonial perorations, episodes of folksy chintz, sentimental waltzes, Disneyesque vocalises, and funeral or triumphal marches of pompous, cymbal-crashing banality. Yet this is how the Soviet man in the street knew Shostakovich, if he knew him at all. His success at providing obvious music to obvious images (and throwing in a song or a waltz which caught the ear) created his popular image in the USSR. No conception of Shostakovich is complete if it omits this aspect of his career, however negligible the music associated with it. Apart from anything else, it was the composer's demotic touch which made him useful to "Socialism" in the eyes of the Communist leadership. Indeed, it was probably Shostakovich's exploits on celluloid soundtracks which commended him to Stalin and may even have kept him alive when others close to him were perishing.
Arising from projects which he believed in (or, at the very least, tickled his imagination), Shostakovich's better fim scores - New Babylon (1929), The Gadfly (1955), Hamlet (1964), and King Lear (1970) - are already fairly well known in the West. Capriccio's "Original Motion Picture" Shostakovich series so far consists of five releases, only two of which are currently available outside Germany and which are those reviewed here. The others (which presumably will be issued presently) are: New Babylon/Five Days, Five Nights [10341/42], King Lear , and Hamlet/The Gadfly .
In all, Shostakovich composed music for 34 films. The earliest work here - the suite from the film Golden Mountains (1931), assembled by the composer in 1936 - has been issued on CD twice before: in a recording by the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra under José Serebrier (along with the suites from Michurin and The Fall of Berlin [RCA Victor Red Seal RK60226]) and in a version by the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (coupled with New Babylon [Russian Disc RCCD 11064]). Serebrier's version, which omits the waltz, is part of a three-volume series distinguished by clueless sleevenotes, lifeless recordings, and performances that make ditchwater seem interesting. By comparison, Jurowski acquits himself with honour and is well recorded with a walloping percussion section which film buffs will particularly enjoy.
A big hit in the USSR, Golden Mountains was Shostakovich's third film and, despite its propagandist plot (about a peasant "awakening" to revolutionary consciousness in St Petersburg), he was still interested enough in the medium to experiment. The most salient example of this is a 7-minute fugue for organ and orchestra which caused excited comment in 1931. Jurowski's reading of this bastard son of the passacaglia in Lady Macbeth is comparatively reserved, although spectacularly recorded; Rozhdestvensky is more convincingly full-tilt, although less clearly produced and vitiated by tuning problems. Collectors of Shostakovich's popular hits will want to hear the Waltz; those on the lookout for echoes of his symphonic style will be fascinated by the tense Intermezzo, with its anticipation of the opening movement of the Eleventh Symphony. (Whether Golden Mountains concerns the 1905 period is unknown. Frustratingly, the sleevenote writer, who has done no research, cannot help us here.) The rest of the score is workaday stuff. (When Shostakovich hurriedly put together the suite in 1936, he could not even be bothered to write a short coda to the Finale, instead simply dropping in the already slapdash closing bars of his Third Symphony.)
The so-called suite from the "Maxim Trilogy", which accompanies Golden Mountains on the new Capriccio issue, actually consists of the Prologue from Maxim's Youth (1934-5) plus Lev Atoumyan's 1961 suite Opus 50a supposedly from the third of the Maxim films, Vyborg District (1938). (This picture is also known as The Vyborg Side, districts in Russian cities being referred to as "sides" according to which other cities they face). In fact, only one of the numbers in Opus 50a is drawn from the score for Vyborg District: No. 8, the Overture. The rest consists of five numbers (2, 3, 4, 6, 7) from the second of the Maxim films, Maxim's Return (1936-7), and two from The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1951). Presumably Atoumyan imported the last two items because of the revolutionary songs they contain. This is unfortunate since they are composed in the faceless style of the era of Stalin worship after the Second World War, and, as such, clash with the uproarious irreverence of most of the rest of the music, written during the 1930s.
In the "Maxim Trilogy", Shostakovich was working with friends - Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg - and clearly felt relaxed enough to have fun. The Prologue from Maxim's Youth is typical: a rumbustious march which, Ives-like, runs simultaneously with a fairground waltz before diverting into a jolly music-hall song (sung here by Svetlana Katchur). The fugue in the "Attack" scene from Maxim's Return is short but vintage Shostakovich. Without the intrusions from The Unforgettable Year 1919, this suite would be a perfectly acceptable representation of Shostakovich's film music of the mid-to-late 1930s. As it is, Jurowski's selection is well performed and, while not for generalists, will interest hardcore fans.
The second of these discs holds fewer attractions. The score for Zoya (1944) - a film by Lev Arnshtam about Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a girl partisan who, captured behind enemy lines near Moscow, was tortured and shot - is enlivened only by Shostakovich's orchestration of his Prelude in E flat minor, Opus 34 No. 14, and an amusing "Hero's Victory" march which careers crazily from key to key. The Fall of Berlin (1949), which the composer wrote after his nadir The Song of the Forests, consists of bombast and false pathos in an uncharacteristic style which few would identify as Shostakovich were it nor for the occasional passing references to his symphonies: the mounting intensity of the dirge "In the Ruined Village" (Eleventh Symphony: III); a brief snatch in "The Storming of the Seelov Heights" (Tenth Symphony: II); the first orchestral chord of "Scene in the Underground" (first chord of Fifth Symphony: IV).