“Tahiti Trot” (“Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans), op. 16 (1927)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Jazz Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (London 433 702 – 2; currently issued on Decca)
“Tahiti Trot” is Shostakovich’s first work in chronological order that I have deep, abiding, warm feelings for. I’ve been listening to this track consistently since I was in high school and by now it’s become like musical comfort food, soothing and enjoyable for its well-worn familiarity. I think most people have songs like this; mine happens to be Soviet light-orchestra music, which feels slightly embarrassing, but so be it.
The tune is Vincent Youmans’ jazz standard “Tea for Two”, which, still new in the late 1920s, apparently swept the USSR much as it did the U.S. (There it was retitled “Tahiti Trot”, I guess to appeal more to the foreign market or to preserve the alliteration in translation.) Shostakovich legendarily reorchestrated it on a bet, from memory and in less than an hour; for a while his formidably charming arrangement became one of his own greatest hits in his home country.
It’s a humorous setting but, in contrast to the music of to the soon-to-be-completed The Nose, there’s no ironic posture in it, no cool or self-conscious framing. Shostakovich embraces the catchiness of the melody and, over the piece’s three and a half minutes, presents it in a series of amiable instrumentations. It’s bright and original, though barely continuous with the wilder colors of the opera and the second symphony, except perhaps for a preponderance of mallet percussion and some gently jokey trombone glissandi:
I love the rich strings at the end of that excerpt above — in the hard-to-place way that an orchestration sounds characteristic of a composer, it just sounds like Shostakovich. And since “Tea for Two” is one of my favorite earworms on its own, they are, as the Reese’s folks used to say, two great tastes that taste great together. I don’t think it should push Ella Fitzgerald out of anyone’s heart but it’s a worthy version of the song.
Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is a justly popular album and the first essential Shostakovich disc of this blog-through. (A disclaimer: Nothing on the album remotely resembles actual jazz music, even by the standard of “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman‘s orchestra in 1920s America.) And you really should listen to it as a full album, as the selections balance each other nicely and show off a good swath of the composer’s lighter side: Besides the “Tahiti Trot” it includes Shostakovich’s quirkily orchestrated Jazz Suite No. 1; the less idiosyncratic but still fun Suite for Promenade Orchestra (now and seemingly forever mislabeled as his Jazz Suite No. 2), whose Waltz No. 2 became an improbable breakout hit from the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack and an Andre Rieu party piece; and, bridging the divide between Shostakovich’s light music and his more serious concert fare, his first piano concerto. Chailly directs everything with a light touch and glossy charm; it’s just a delightful disc. I’ve found that as I’ve dug into Shostakovich’s bigger, more psychologically complex works (most of the symphonies, the string quartets) that knowing his straightforward song-and-dance works helps me appreciate what’s going on in the light-music episodes (frequently distorted and caustic) that constantly occur within his bigger canvasses. More than that, though, it’s just the other, brighter side of his stylistic coin, well-crafted and worthy music on its own terms.