Opus 39: The Limpid Stream (1934-1935)

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Shostakovich continues to simplify the style he used in his earlier, withdrawn ballets to agree better with the demands of the USSR’s official tastemakers, and the result sounds like a watered-down version of The Golden Age, missing its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.

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