Two pieces for the opera Poor Columbus, by Erwin Dressel, op. 23 (1929)
Overture (Entr’acte): “The Unknown Shostakovich”, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Polyansky (Chandos 9792)
Finale: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 10 & 11, etc., USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63461 2)
These two pieces, written to fill out a Leningrad production of a satirical opera by contemporary German composer Erwin Dressel, are utterly continuous with the other works Shostakovich wrote in the years 1929 and 1930, and, except for us completists, completely redundant. Laurel Fay notes that he composed the works out of excised Bedbug music as a favor to the opera producers who were, at the time, still readying the first staging of The Nose; it’s very much occassional material. Like the Scarlatti transcriptions they occupy the periphery of what Shostakovich was up to during these years.
Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos presents the overture, which scampers through four minutes in a by now familiar style. I’ve had this disc for some time and I thought I remembered a likeably weighty climax in this track, but that turned out to be the opening procession of The Golden Age. This is comparatively nondescript:
Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the finale, from another of BMG’s now-withdrawn Melodiya reissues, is more interesting sonically, maybe due to the drier and fussier sound of his ensemble. I like the instrumental smear early in the clip below; it’s also worth noticing that the trumpet melody that comes gallivanting out of it is the one used in The Golden Age that’s also destined for the first piano concerto:
This sort of recycling, besides demonstrating Shostakovich’s apparent regard for the tune, is what I’d expect from a young composer trying to make money in difficult times, on the hook for writing a tremendous amount of music in a short time within a culture with pretty lax ideas about intellectual property.
The finale accompanied an epilogue to the opera consisting of an animated, anti-American short film. The film’s long gone but the episodic quality is evident in the music; at one point a choir sings out, briefly, “Peace! Peace! International Peace!”; Shostakovich’s contribution to the production turns a couple of his somersaults and booms to a close.
Dressel’s musical legacy, based on albums and sheet music for sale, seems to consist mainly of his solo saxophone works, and Poor Columbus itself, as far as I can tell, is gone but for its glancing association with Shostakovich’s career. YouTube, however, does surface a brief video of a dog that, by an accident of naming, unexpectedly connects the pet to a long-forgotten satirical opera of the Weimar Republic. Embedding disabled per that owner-videographer’s request, or else I’d try to secure that doggy’s own legacy here.