Archive for November, 2010

No opus number: Jazz Suite No. 1 (1934)

November 24, 2010

Jazz Suite No. 1, sans opus (1934)
CD:  “Shostakovich: The Jazz Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (London 433 702 – 2; currently issued on Decca)

When I bought Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” in high school, in the early stages of my Shostakovich fervency — I think I was familiar with the fifth, tenth, and thirteenth symphonies by then, and probably not much else — I had high hopes that the Soviet composer would prove to be a polystylistic master of the symphonic jazz idiom, another Gershwin or Bernstein.  The fact that the album’s opener, the first jazz suite, contains a waltz and a polka dashed those hopes somewhat even on examining the CD packaging in the store; Elizabeth Wilson’s note in the booklet essay that “the music hardly corresponds to the accepted understanding of jazz” (which I recall reading before listening to the album, most likely in the car on the way home from Border’s) seemed a pretty frank disappointment of those teenager’s hopes for a Russified Rhapsody in Blue.  But it took listening through to the middle of the final piece in the suite, the foxtrot, to grasp just how wacky Shostakovich’s concept of jazz is:

Only for this listening expedition did I finally look up what instrument is squeakily crooning over a sliding trombone — it’s a Hawaiian guitar, which Shostakovich had used once before in his Golden Mountains film score — but I’ve been at least used to the effect for years.  On that initial listening it seemed funny, rather cutesy, and generally inexplicable.  I imagined then, as I still do now, a lazy hound dog in some cartoon set on the banks of the Mississippi circa 1940.

Since then I’ve learned to place the jazz suite within the larger body of Shostakovich’s light music but it’s remained an unusually charming example for me, due to its relatively good tunes, instrumental novelty and — not least — small size.  Even at that, hearing its opening waltz again this week made me fear that I’d killed my taste for the composer’s dance music, at least temporarily:  Working through five years of such material, especially the declawed works starting with The Bolt, is the music-listening equivalent of eating your way through a crate of increasingly stale petit-fours.  It doesn’t help that the waltz’s main theme also sees a lot of use in The Limpid Stream, written around the same time, although it’s winsome enough if taken at a smaller dosage; it also shares a four-note opening descent with the later, more sly, recently much more famous “second waltz”:

The polka, though, cleansed my brain of any toxicity:  It’s just a really good light-orchestra track, varied and charming and amiably melodic.  If you don’t the handoff in the middle of it between one operetta-like saxophone tune and another, you’re not going to like any of this stuff.

The foxtrot is a longer and heavier dance number in a minor key but Chailly keeps the music light and quick, letting the darker hue add piquancy without turning the music into vaudevillian drama or a sad clown routine, as a couple of other recordings do.  It’s really enjoyable music, probably an ideal introduction to Shostakovich’s lighter side (along with the rest of the album; see also the “Tahiti-Trot”) and, if you’re not diving too deep into the composer’s oeuvre, one of the only works you need.

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Opus 41: Maxim’s Youth (1934)

November 23, 2010

Maxim’s Youth, op. 41 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

As Love and Hatred did, Maxim’s Youth provided me with a web-enabled, unsubtitled, Harvey-Keitel-in-U-571-like, “Everything’s in Russian!” sort of home video experience: Kozintsev and Trauberg’s 1935 film lacks an accessible DVD release, so it’s back to the YouTube library at the SHOSTAKOVI.CH fan site for me. This time I availed myself of John Riley’s plot summary beforehand, to whatever extent that helped: Maxim, a waggish young factory worker, wakes up politically after a pair of industrial accidents, organizes covertly, demonstrates, goes to jail, and ultimately escapes to carry on his work. The story is a Soviet archetype but the film, the first in a trilogy, was very popular in its time, and the character of Maxim apparently became something of a folk hero, one not always entirely understood by the citizenry to be fictional. More useful is Riley’s description of Shostakovich’s involvement in the soundtrack, for which he acted more as a co-curator than as a composer. A popular waltz tune serves as Maxim’s theme song and most of the soundtrack corresponds to action within the film itself: Characters sing and very frequently play the accordion, dance tunes play from behind closed doors, pastiches of industrial sound set an appropriately proletarian mood.

The exception to that is the nighttime sleigh ride in the prologue, set to the only music in the film that Shostakovich composed himself. He mashes up four melodies for the scene, including a polka that he would reuse down the line in a galop in his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki and a song (sung by a giddy woman in the middle of the scene) called “I am a Footballer!”. The prologue’s exuberant satire of a gaggle of decadent bourgeoisie recalls the visual energy of the directors’ earlier New Babylon more than any Shostakovich film collaboration I’ve watched since then. In fact the scene seems to have little reason to lead off the film other than that it looks nifty, a formalist appetizer before the directors settle into the film’s plainer, more populist attitude, aided by the absence of Shostakovich’s thick orchestral sounds.

The other notable scene for Shostakoviphiles highlights the song “You Fell as a Victim”, which the composer used prominently within his eleventh symphony two decades later. Here it serves within a long, initially very moody sequence in which a worker is killed in a factory accident. Maxim, initially backed only by a soundscape of keening whistles, comes to the factory floor and sees his fallen comrade, whose status as martyr is sealed by a shaft of sunlight; the assembled workers then spontaneously begin singing the revolutionary song as they bear the body away in a funeral procession that boils over into political demonstration.

I was pretty bored by the film by the end. Most likely that’s because I don’t know what any of the words mean, less of a handicap than commonly thought, I suspect, when watching narrative movies but a handicap nonetheless. Or perhaps it’s because the film becomes more somber and self-constrained as it works towards its didactic close; perhaps too because most films have trouble sustaining their energy and novelty all the way through to the end. For all that, the film has a number of evocative sounds and, more so, a visual panache that I find hard to define; the filmmakers’ editing is consistently snappy, as in their earlier New Babylon and Alone, and there is some striking, dramatically shadowed close-up photography of the actors. Boris Chirkov in the title role has enough high-spirited charisma to carry many scenes for me even though their finer details were incomprehensible due to the language barrier. In contrast to when I watched Love and Hatred a week ago, I didn’t push myself to try to understand what precisely the story is. Instead I took in the movie’s visual and auditory pleasures, when present (including the gritty but still somewhat fantastical factory setting, with its chorus of hooters and its tiny steam locomotives) and let myself be carried along, half distracted, through it’s duller stretches. It’s a satisfactory way to watch a film.

Thanks-a-kovich

November 22, 2010

I’m planning another short week of Shostakovich blogging with the Thanksgiving holiday coming up on Thursday.  Along with braving the pre-holiday grocery store crowds I hope to get through the composer’s first jazz suite and his music for the film Maxim’s Youth, which by my count will round out my survey of his works from 1934, another prolific year for the composer.

I’m happy that with the cello sonata I’ve reached the opus-forties, an auspicious if arbitrary group of eleven Shostakovich works (two film scores share op. 41).  Besides the sonata, of which I’m a newly minted fan, the pieces include the fourth and fifth symphonies and the first string quartet.  Those works, not coincidentally, correspond to a political low point in the mid- to late 1930s, for Shostakovich and for the USSR, but they mark his metamorphosis from a composer of operas and ballets into a composer of more abstract symphonies and chamber music.  His career as a film composer remained relatively constant through that time.  Doing some back-of-the-envelope scheduling, I hope to cover about that much musical ground before I take a longer break for Christmas next month.

No opus number: Moderato for Cello and Piano (1930s)

November 19, 2010

Moderato for Cello and Piano, sans opus (1930s)
mp3 download:  Lynn Harrell (cello), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)  (Decca 475 7425)

The Moderato for Cello and Piano, composed sometime in the 1930s and discovered alongside the cello sonata’s manuscript in the 1980s, is probably destined to remain an obscure footnote to that larger work.  The two-and-a-half-minute Moderato shares the lyricism of the sonata’s first movement:  The cello part often sounds like a wordless aria with piano accompaniment, not unlike Katerina’s emotional outpourings in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — my impression is certainly colored by the cello’s quoting of her fourth-act aria in Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet — although the Moderato also veers into salon-music sentimentality as well.

The melodies fail to make an impression and it ends up as a forgettable piece, not surprising for material untouched for decades by a composer who never let a promising musical idea lie unused in obscurity if he could help it.

News of Orango’s Premiere

November 19, 2010

An update on Orango, Shostakovich’s unfinished satirical opera about an ape-human hybrid:  The L.A. Times ran an article yesterday announcing that its prologue, completed by Gerard McBurney, will be premiered in December 2011 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a semi-staged concert produced by Peter Sellars.  Quite a high-profile introduction for the long-forgotten project.

The comments in the article by McBurney and Shostakovich scholar David Fanning (who damns Shostakovich’s manuscript pretty hard with faint praise) reinforce my expectation that the new music is going to sound much like Declared Dead and the composer’s other, also frequently ill-starred theatrical works of the early 1930s:  hastily drawn, a little bit chaotic, musically thin.  I do hope to make it to the show, though, schedule permitting — “sounds like Shostakovich” is enough for me, at the end of the day, and even mediocre music can make for gripping entertainment in concert in a way that recordings never quite can.

I’m intrigued, too, by what Sellars will bring to the project.  I know his work almost entirely through his collaborations with John Adams (also from a video production of Weill and Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins and from hearing him speak at length when he visited a seminar I was in in college) and I wonder how his characteristic humanism will play against the young Shostakovich’s music, whose satire (despite the towering exception of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) often lacks earnestness and whose overt political gestures are merely skin-deep.  I’m interested to see and hear what the artists will put together out of it; collectively they will have spent a lot more effort to bring the opera to the stage than did Shostakovich himself.

Opus 40: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1934)

November 19, 2010

Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40 (1934)
CD:  “Sonatas for Cello and Piano”, Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Dejan Lazic (piano)  (Channel Classics CCS 20098)

I’m very glad to have reached the cello sonata.  Shostakovich’s music for stage and screen has its pleasures but my project leaves me little control over my focused listening, and these mid-November days right after the fallback to standard time from daylight savings have me in the mood for contemplative, chamber-sized music.  I listened through the sonata three times through between Monday and Tuesday (this post goes up late due to some technical difficulties), hearing it for the first time ever in blustery cool weather and then steady rain — too often while driving, but that’s what my schedule this week affords — and it’s both an engaging work of art and an apt companion to the season.

Shostakovich turned into a formidable composer of chamber music but to this point in his career he’d written little of it, at least in part because the Soviet Union’s cultural arbiters hadn’t yet settled the question of whether such small-scale music was too individualistic for the needs of the state and its mass audiences.  His Aphorisms and 24 Preludes, vehicles for his career as a pianist, seem to contain his most personal music so far.  (The first symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk speak with a great deal of emotion and personality, too, but more dramatically so.)  The cello sonata, though it’s more romantically lyrical than the equilibrium his style would hold through the 1940s and ’50s, is the first of his works that I recognize as middle-period rather than early Shostakovich, in its directness of expression and in its symphonic expansiveness despite its chamber size.

A long Allegro non troppo opens the sonata with grace, although it casts shadows too:  The elegant opening theme, in a move that would become typical in the composer’s string quartets and elsewhere, quickly becomes subject to darker-hued dramatics.  A more expansive, upward-reaching second theme, lovelier than is typical for Shostakovich’s melodies, quiets the mood.  The piano introduces it under unabashedly sentimental sighs from the cello, before the instruments trade it off:

That second theme recurs wistfully in between developmental episodes.  The movement ends on a dark note, as the cello slowly restates the opening theme; Wispelwey gives the passage a spectral presence.

The opening of the second movement also sounds remarkable on this disc, a cold, droning whirlwind of a round dance:

The movement lightens in places but despite its motion it frequently sounds hollow, drained of all mirth.  The eight-minute Largo that follows forms the emotional core of the piece.  It is dark, nocturnal music, characterized by searching melodic lines and pulsing rhythms in the piano.  It reaches back to the unsettling Cradle Song that ends Aphorisms and to the murky atmosphere of the Japanese songs, but it also looks forward to the more harrowing Nocturne of the first violin concerto:  A few passages give off a loamy warmth but there is little solace to be found in this musical night.

The fast-moving fourth movement bears the closest resemblance to the puckish but edgy items within the 24 Preludes, although it recalls the first piano concerto too; the former cinema pianist pops out of its theatrical outbursts.  This last movement lacks the concerto’s sunny mood, though, running back and forth between nervous glee and something more like existential panic, especially in some running figures near the end that recall the frenzy of the second movement.

Wispelwey and Lazic have a very fine, full sound on this album.  In particular, the disc picks up a rich range of sounds from the cello body (perhaps enhanced just a little by my noise-reducing headphones and factory-standard Honda Civic speakers).  The two cut appropriately punchy, hard-edged entrances for the sonata’s more theatrical sections, honing the music’s angst; in its less explosive stretches they draw out Shostakovich’s broad, thoroughly mature range from lyrical warmth to psychological darkness.  The album also includes excellent accounts of Prokofiev’s and Britten’s cello sonatas, which I listened through a few weeks ago in sunnier weather.

In spite of its depths, Shostakovich’s sonata has a simplicity of a piece with The Limpid Stream and most of his other works since Lady Macbeth.  That simplicity of expression, increasingly demanded of him (although it seems to grow more organically as well as he moves past a youthful bomb-throwing phase), is stronger and more organic here, as the composer finds a direct musical channel for his emotional ambiguities instead of trying to spike a watery balletic punch.  Although plenty was happening in the USSR in 1934 to fuel dark thoughts in Shostakovich and his fellow Soviet citizens, I don’t hear it as straight autobiography or as a testament to that historical moment — he wrote too much light music alongside it for that, however much you read those as mere sops to the state.  Rather, it seems like a space where he could give voice to his anxieties without, due to its abstractness and more conventional musical development, drawing too much official ire, at least for a time.  It’s music very much worth hearing, and a fine accompaniment to this time of year.

Opus 39: The Limpid Stream (1934-1935)

November 16, 2010

The Limpid Stream, op. 39 (1934-1935)
CD:  Shostakovich: The Limpid Stream, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Chandos CHAN 9423)

Gennady Rozhdestvensky once again, but this time with Chandos’ typically fine audio engineering and the rounder, decidedly non-Eastern-European sound of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.  This disc represents the most of The Limpid Stream that’s been recorded in one place, in a form edited down by Rozhdestvensky to remove selections too redundant either with The Bolt or with material within The Limpid Stream itself.

If this is the least self-repetitive seventy minutes in the three-act ballet, I fear a little bit for the full score.  To be more charitable, though, the music taken from his earlier ballets was no longer suitable for performance in its original form in the Soviet Union — The Bolt in particular had flamed out after no more than a couple of public performances — and by the time Levon Atovmyan arranged Shostakovich’s four Ballet Suites in the dark years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, The Limpid Stream had been blackballed itself for more than a decade.  Repetition within the ballet score itself is less aesthetically excusable; according to David Nice’s clear-eyed album notes, Rozhdestvensky at least cropped out some overuse, in his judgment, of one of the first-act waltz tunes.

Shostakovich continues to simplify the style he used in his earlier, withdrawn ballets to agree better with the demands of the USSR’s official tastemakers, and the result sounds like a watered-down version of The Golden Age, missing its saxophones and less conventional instrumental effects.  It’s a livelier, more pungent score than The Bolt — or perhaps Rozhdestvensky sells it better as such than the Bolshoi’s orchestra did when I listened to the earlier score — but it still leans heavily towards comprehensible melodic lines and short, easy-to-follow dance numbers.  In places you hear the heroic sweep of Shostakovich’s film music; in others, folksiness that begins to sound like a more Russian Percy Grainger.  None of this simplicity saved the ballet from official criticism, after a successful initial run.  The work is the least known of the trio of Shostakovich’s works that the state cracked down on in 1936, shortly after Pravda’s condemnation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and before rehearsals for the premiere of the fourth symphony were suppressed.  In comparison to those much darker, edgier works, it’s hard to hear what the USSR’s cultural bosses found objectionable in the ballet — it has a detectable taste of musical satire, although it’s probably more simply the case that they wanted to bring Shostakovich completely to heel.

Rozhdestvensky does draw out the satirical edge of the music well, when such an edge is present.  Floating throughout the first act is the material that became a galop in, I think, Atovmyan’s first Ballet Suite; I’m used to it in that more madcap form, but here it’s played with a heavier tread and a subtle but pointed prickliness:

Another notable forerunner to the Ballet Suites pops up in an Allegro poco moderato in Act II:

Here it’s not a successful piece at all — the line in the bassoon noodles around for a couple of minutes, with occasional wan interjections from other wind instruments — but in the fourth Ballet Suite that bass line is ironed out and transformed into a stately prelude, one of my favorites out of Shostakovich’s lighter works.  Based on Derek Hulme it seems as though Atovmyan should get credit for that metamorphosis, although it’s not clear to me.

Earlier in Act I, Shostakovich deploys one of his few gentler, sentimental pieces, the only really successful one within the ballet.  Out of all the familiarity of the music here, this track is most surprising to me in foreshadowing the end of the fifth symphony’s first movement, maybe just because I’m still hyper-attuned to precursors to that work, which is often taken as more of a departure from Shostakovich’s earlier style than it is.  Here Shostakovich similarly uses a soft, shaded string texture and a gently beating rhythm, and achieves a lovely, pensive effect:

The moment is an exception to the score’s consistently extroverted personality.  Rozhdestvensky’s last Act I number is one of the ballet’s most grandiloquent pieces — and also bears a strong, Christmassy resemblance to “Adeste Fideles” (i.e. “O Come All Ye Faithful”) early on, though it quickly stops sounding like a carol and starts sounding like The Bolt again:

The music for the end of the ballet, in another typical Shostakovich move, becomes heavier and more tense; with gnarlier harmonies and a couple of searching, angular melodic lines, Shostakovich adds a note of high-energy ambiguity, rather than just punching home the expected, uncomplicated major-key finale.  Hulme lists the final dance as one of the pieces recycled from The Bolt, which I missed on my own listening — distinguishing “sounds like The Bolt” from “is The Bolt” after hearing each work once is not easy, nor a valuable talent to try to cultivate — but it works fine here as a conclusion.

There is some fine music within the score and a whole lot more music that, while not rote, just isn’t especially good.  Most of what’s good here ended up in the later, more manageable Ballet Suites, and The Golden Age is a superior score in a similar but undiluted style.  Both The Bolt and The Limpid Stream have been getting revivals in the past decade and I wouldn’t turn away from seeing either performed, but my first impression of them both is that they’re not necessary on disc.  Shostakovich’s latter two full-length ballets seem too stylistically compromised to be interesting on their musical merits — a sad foreshadowing, maybe, of the fact that within two years’ time Pravda‘s criticism would put an end to Shostakovich’s ballet writing entirely.

Opus 38: Love and Hatred (1934)

November 15, 2010

Love and Hatred, op. 38 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

Chopped-up YouTube uploads are no way to watch a movie, if you have a choice.  But it’s the easiest way to get to Shostakovich’s score for Albert Gendelshtein’s 1935 film, Love and Hatred (the music was composed the previous year):  The movie isn’t available in any recent DVD edition that I can track down and the soundtrack is otherwise unrecorded.  Tokai, the young Japanese proprietor of SHOSTAKOVI.CH, seems sincerely to believe that the Shostakovich-scored films he’s uploaded are in the public domain in Japan.  I hope that’s correct, or at least that they remain on the web for a while, as they’re an excellent resource for exploring the composer’s film music.

Another hurdle is that the movie isn’t subtitled or translated, and I don’t speak Russian.  To some extent that is a problem.  I think of the middling submarine movie U-571, in which an American engineer played by Harvey Keitel, forced to control a commandeered U-Boat, complains desperately that “Everything’s in German!” (at 1:10 in the preview there) — Love and Hatred‘s narrative, like a foreign submarine, is almost but not quite possible for me to work out properly.  Yet, there’s a liberation in focusing on the visuals and the flow of sound while abandoning the words, particularly since I suspect much of the text is propagandistic boilerplate.  The heroes and villains are established more than broadly enough and I doubt there is much lost in the dialog that’s better than the mystery of not knowing.

I could look up John Riley’s summary of the film but, to see just how explicable it would be to me if I watched it cold, I did not; I’ll check later and write an update if I’m wildly wrong about anything.  (The actors’ names, which I can’t read, are listed on the meager IMDB entry.)  It’s a story of women in a mining town fending for themselves in Revolutionary times after their men all go to war.  (The time is clearly established by the opening shot, which solemnly considers a socialist-realist sculpture of women clearly labeled “1919”.)  Some male officers, I think anticommunist Russians, arrive and take charge of the town; the women ultimately organize, take up arms against their oppressors, and finally meet a group of soldiers who, after some tension, prove to be their returning husbands and sweethearts.

Gendelshtein’s film isn’t nearly as visually exciting as Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon or Alone, despite instances of sharp editing.  Some promising montage sequences early on largely give way to longer, more static, talkier scenes.  I’m struck most by the frank images of women laboring in the mines and fighting with enemy men:  The scenes have the unreality of propaganda but they are far less softened and sexualized than virtually anything I’m used to seeing in contemporary American film.  Without understanding the words, I understand something of the film’s ideal of the Soviet woman, who fills both the role of provider and fighter.  The women trade impassioned speeches while bathing their children; in one particularly telling scene, a shot of a woman coddling her baby cuts to another woman stroking a rifle.

On to Shostakovich.  Really, the film seems a little bit thin on Shostakovich.  The credits play out to one of the score’s longer orchestral selections, but solo and choral songs and some smaller instrumental numbers are more prominent after that.  The style accords with what little I heard of his music for The Counterplan.  It isn’t cut off completely from Shostakovich’s non-cinematic output — his incidental music for The Human Comedy most clearly bends towards his emerging film style — but to this point in his career the composer did write differently for movies, more clearly and romantically, I assume because he anticipated a broader audience, not to mention responded to the needs of that audience as laid out by the Soviet film industry’s minders.

The most interesting sonic episode in the film happens at about the ten-minute mark, in a sequence of mixed sound and silence that I doubt Shostakovich was directly involved in.  The men go marching out of town to a choral number accompanied by organ — an odd aggrandizement of the squeezebox played by the soldier at the front of the column — but this fades off into an uneasy silence as the abandoned mining facility is shown.  Women wail, briefly; then machine guns and shells provide the soundtrack as they tear up some pastoral scenery.  Finally, church bells toll, completing a mural in images and sounds of the troubles of war.

Also notable is some diegetic music that issues from the gramophone of a boorish, slovenly military officer — first an oafish march, and later a leering dance number.  The scenes make explicit what Shostakovich had in mind when he deployed such tunes in more abstract settings:

As has become typical of Shostakovich’s works by now, the music becomes more dramatic and bombastic at the end.  A stern orchestral procession accompanies the women as they arm themselves and march out from the town, carrying the bodies of their fallen comrades on an artillery piece.  The music looks forward to Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony two decades later:  It is direct, tuneful, humorless, revolutionary.

The quality of the recorded sound is obviously poor, but I like that it preserves the style of orchestral playing of the mid-1930s — More than a finer, contemporary audiophile recording, it feels like a direct line to the function of Shostakovich’s music within the film.

Next Week in Shostakovich, Early Nights Edition

November 12, 2010

The first week of falling back to standard time from daylight savings always seems to plunge every day prematurely into inky blackness, especially under the stubbornly drizzly Portland cloud cover.  This is seasonally affective but not really pertinent to the present Shostakovich project, other than by contributing to an artificial feeling of shortness of the week.  More concretely, yesterday I found that sundry work and personal tasks slowed me down in the already surprisingly slower-than-expected process of watching all of Albert Gendelshtein’s film Love and Hatred in ten-minute YouTube chunks.

Excuses, excuses; yet I press on.  Next week, the movie, a ballet, music for cello and piano.  Probably some early Prokofiev too.

No opus number: Orango (early 1930s; incomplete) — UNAVAILABLE

November 11, 2010

Orango, sans opus (early 1930s; incomplete) — Unavailable

It’s unrecorded, but then the piano sketches for Shostakovich’s planned satirical opera, Orango, only resurfaced in 2004.  Gerard McBurney, who arranged Declared Dead among other Shostakovich works, has since orchestrated the existing eleven numbers.

This article on G. Schirmer’s site is the best source about the nature of the work that I’ve found so far, and includes a comprehensive outline of the planned work’s story.  This past October’s issue of the journal Tempo also ran an item about Orango by McBurney, though in my non-scholarly haste I haven’t found the full text of the article yet.

It is rather mind-blowing to me that Shostakovich had started work on a previously unknown opera about an ape-human hybrid — the first news that I read of it sounded more than a little rumorous, like the old canard about Shostakovich having shrapnel embedded in his brain that made him hear music when he tilted his head.  But the opera’s premise, by the writer’s Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, parodies the actually-stranger-than-fiction hybridization experiments of Ilya Ivanov and fits a believable agitprop profile:  Orango, created by a French biologist who impregnated his ape mother with human sperm, tracks down his creator in France as a young man, becomes an anti-Communist journalist, and rises in the bourgeois press as his non-human features become more and more pronounced.  The project seems to have died much the same way The Big Lightning did, falling behind schedule and then petering out.  (Ultimately, too, Ivanov was arrested and died in exile, and Starchakov was arrested and shot in 1936.)  Shostakovich did complete a draft for piano of a forty-minute prologue, though, which was to be followed by three acts.

The Schirmer overview notes that the prologue incorporates music from The Bolt and Declared Dead, so I expect the newly found work fits right in with them, not to mention with Poor Columbus, The Big Lightning, Rule, Britannia!, and Hamlet, all of them stage works from the same few years that similarly inhabit the stylistic shadow of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Some Chicago Symphony program notes from this spring state that McBurney’s completion “will be premiered in Lost Angeles in 2011-12”.  I can’t find any other information or press release about that anticipated performance online but I hope it does happen; L.A. is close enough to PDX for a pilgrimage.  I don’t want to run on speculatively about the music sight unseen (or “sound unheard”?), or without reading the couple of scholarly articles on the subject that are out there already, but I have modest expectations for Orango, given its unfinished state, the noted instances of recycling, and the example of the many seemingly similar works above.  (I also hope that the work mostly steps around the landmines of overt racism strewn throughout its premise.)  But even incomplete or fragmentary ideas are ideas I’d like to hear, and the planned plot is just to wild to pass on.  To very loosely paraphrase Bart Simpson:  Finished, shminished; I want my monkey-man opera.