Rule, Britannia!, op. 28 (1931) (Reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald)
Camerata Silesia, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)
After considering a couple of hour-plus productions on DVD — and, more exhaustingly, struggling with my ad hoc, open-source video extraction methodology, prone to obscure software glitches and pervasive frame rate errors — it’s a relief to handle eight minutes of incidental music on CD. Granted, I find little to say stylistically about the existing incidental numbers for Rule, Britannia!, an apparently long-lost play by Adrian Piotrovsky about communist agitation in the West, as reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald. It’s clear, practical, functional music for theater in a lighter, more jovial version of the First of May symphony’s language. “The Internationale” is unfurled (according to John Riley’s survey of Shostakovich’s film music, the onetime Soviet national anthem was a longstanding, easily emblematic go-to in the composer’s scores); in presumably dramatic numbers (“Protest”, “Raising the Banner”) the music stirs up the necessary tension on demand.
Most of what jumped at me from these tracks did so in connection with more substantial Shostakovich works. A few moments of lower, tension-building music resemble similar atmospheric sections of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk score, a work in progress in 1931; in particular a swinging figure in the clarinet recalls the scene in which Katerina and Sergei dispose of her husband’s body. (I don’t know whether the choice of instrument in this case is Shostakovich’s or Fitz-Gerald’s; if the latter I suspect he had the opera somewhere in mind.) And the opening figure of the “Infantry March”, for those hopelessly attuned to such things, has the same shape as the brutish main motif of the tenth symphony’s second movement (if you want to fast-forward a bit, YouTube offers Gustavo Dudamel’s rock-star performance of it with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, though I’m still keeping myself from listening ahead), although the incidental track goes piping off in another direction entirely:
The play gets a spirited choral finale too — nothing too grand here, but I like the playful treatment of the word “proletariat” (eleven seconds in) and the repetitions of “red front”:
The banners are calling us to the last fight, proletariat!
We will not believe the songs and tales of liars!
The bullets of fascists will not stop us.
Let them threaten us from everywhere.
Red front! Red front! Red front!
(English translation by Anastasia Belina, from the album’s notes.)
I don’t know where Shostakovich’s original instrumentation survives and where Fitz-Gerald’s reorchestration of the piano score kicks in, but the whole sounds clean — I like the jangly presence of the piano — and the recorded performance is briskly executed, with crisp choral work by the Camerata Silesia. I’m looking forward to going through the rest of the obscure material on this album (all recently reconstituted by Fitz-Gerald) though my guess is it’s necessary for enthusiasts only. Getting to know some of the composer’s early ballet and theater work, I find, provides a good sense of where his musical career was in his twenties; the smaller fragments of his output, however, are in themselves inessential.