Opus 17: Two Pieces by Scarlatti (1928)

Two Pieces by Scarlatti, op. 17 (1928)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Soloists Ensemble, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Following Shostakovich’s “Tea for Two” arrangement in the catalog are two more transcriptions, these pieces by the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) scored for a small wind band.

This is an extremely minor outpost of Shostakovich’s oeuvre and so I had the benefit, if you’d call it that, of coming into it almost completely cold:  I didn’t know the Shostakovich work, I don’t know the original Scarlatti works, I didn’t read the album liner notes (which offer only one sentence about opus 17), and I don’t know anything about why Shostakovich chose to arrange these pieces or use this particular instrumentation.  It’s a fun prospect to get introduced to an unknown work by a familiar composer, even if in this case it is seven-plus minutes of reorchestrated Baroque music:  Primarily, is it any good to listen to?  But also, what seems to be its intent; why does it exist?  What’s Shostakovich’s angle?

I don’t want to overstate the “why” questions, especially for an obviously minor work — a symphony has something of a thesis, while a little concert work often enough just aims to please.  But even at that, my first impression of the first piece, the Pastorale, was that it doesn’t have much reason for being.  It’s a colorful arrangement, and charming enough, but it feels arbitrary in how it divides its melodic lines among the wind instruments.  (Nothing like Anton von Webern’s reworking the geometry of Bach’s “Musical Offering” by divvying up the subject, not that either Shostakovich’s source material or transcription aspire to those works’ serious-mindedness.)  I didn’t hear much of Shostakovich in it, save for a barely perceptible trace of his humor in the way he isolates a quick descending run in the clarinet:

The phrase “Ted Turner colorization” sprang to mind on that first hearing (not that I remember seeing any colorized movies on TNT, but I do remember reading Orson Welles’ late-in-life injunction, referring to Citizen Kane, to “keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie”).  Shostakovich’s bright instrumentation, combined with the characteristically reedy sound of eastern European woodwinds and some wobbly moments in the performance, gives it just a little bit of garishness.

From the beginning of the Capriccio that follows, though, Shostakovich makes Scarlatti’s music much more his own, adding some modern musical slapstick (I’m thinking mainly of more of those short trombone slides) and tweaking the overall tone into slightly folksy comedy:

When I wrote earlier that “Tahiti Trot” doesn’t have an ironic posture, the Capriccio’s is the kind of attitude I was referring to.  There’s nothing cold or mean-spirited in it, but Shostakovich’s orchestration seems inherently self-conscious, as though in recasting (and gently parodying) part of a Scarlatti keyboard work as a miniature orchestral farce it necessarily calls attention to itself.  I had more fun listening to this one; I’m a big fan of the young Shostakovich’s high-spirited musical clownishness and I like hearing new instances of it.

All that said, after listening to both pieces just a couple more times the above first impressions, as over-thought as they look on the page, do soften and fade into each other — on a subsequent pass I hear more humor in the first piece, while the farcical elements jump out less, and seem less self-aware, in the second.  What happens to first impressions (of music, or of anything) as you record back over theme is a topic for another time, as is, perhaps, what happens when you listen to something with too much intent to come away with a solid opinion of it; these are already too many words to spend on a pleasantly witty footnote to Shostakovich’s compositional career.

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