Archive for the ‘Ballet’ Category

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Shostakovich continues to simplify the style he used in his earlier, withdrawn ballets to agree better with the demands of the USSR’s official tastemakers, and the result sounds like a watered-down version of The Golden Age, missing its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

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Opus 27: The Bolt (1930-1931)

October 5, 2010

The Bolt, op. 27 (1930-1931)
DVD:  Bolt (BelAir classiques BAC020)
The Bolshoi Ballet; Anastasia Yatsenko, Andrew Merkuriev, Denis Savin, Morikhiro Iwata; Alexei Ratmansky, choreography; Orchestra of the State Theatre Bolshoi, Pavel Sorokin, conductor

Bolt is a critically well-liked, animated Disney film about a dog who thinks he has super powers.  Dig a little bit deeper into your DVD search results and you find Bolt, a video release of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Shostakovich’s ballet.  (The title usually carries a definite article in translation.)  As Laurel Fay relates, Shostakovich drolly summarized the work’s scenario to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky partway through his work on the production:

The content is very topical.  There’s a machine.  Then it breaks down (problem of wear and tear on equipment).  Then they fix it (problem of amortization), and at the same time they buy a new one.  Then everyone dances around the new machine.  Apotheosis.  All this takes three acts.

Viktor Smirnov’s libretto was subsequently reformatted to play up the theme of sabotage, “wreckers” being a popular scapegoat for the failure of the Soviet Union’s industrial projects at the time.  This 2006 Bolshoi production holds to the general plot — a dissatisfied shirker tosses a bolt into a factory’s machinery, only to have his plan thwarted by his fellow workers — while discarding a couple of original elements (the involvement of a drunken priest, an apparently raucus churchyard scene) and, judging by Gerard McBurney’s note on the Boosey & Hawkes website, cutting an act’s worth of music, nearly sixty minutes.  Gennady Rozhdestvensky has recorded the full score on Chandos, but it’s better to be able to watch a dance production.

And, really, I suspect the excised music is no great loss.  I’m a little bit familiar with the ballet suite already, or more accurately I’ve listened to it on disc a few times; the music has unfailingly gone in one ear and out the other.  Shostakovich’s score is typically colorful and it functions well enough moment to moment but, more than usual, it lacks memorable tunes.  A few minutes after listening, nothing remains but a sense of the trajectory and high-level outline of the music — a trilling crescendo, a self-consciously huge fanfare, a fragmentary outburst of one dance style or another.  In contrast to The Golden Age, the original Bolt production apparently attempted a more accessible blend of high-art and popular elements, both in its choreography and its music — as Alone did in following New Babylon, the authors pull back from the earlier, highly criticized avant-garde approach — and Shostakovich’s music feels squared off and somewhat rote, stylistically similar to the third symphony albeit with considerably more satire.  The ballet failed anyway after one or two performances.  Simon Morrison’s booklet essay for the DVD floats the dubious idea that its rhetorical emptiness deliberately works to undermine and criticize its ostensibly utopian program; Occam’s razor suggests that the young composer, busy as always and committed to a troubled ballet production whose premise didn’t interest him, just didn’t write his best music.

A middling Shostakovich effort still produces several individual highlights and, all in all, the Bolshoi production is fun to watch.  I don’t have a good critical eye for ballet — put less charitably, I don’t understand it too well — but their Bolt looks uniformly well danced and sharply staged.  I don’t know who to credit with the revised scenario (maybe the choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky?) but it provides a love triangle among the wrecker, his sometime love interest, and an upstanding worker, and, in an odd but effectively destabilizing move, deliberately loses track of its central character within a dream-sequence Red Army revue that occupies the show’s final scene.  I don’t know how Shostakovich’s music was put to use in the original scenario but here the overture and opening scene sound mostly heavy and dramatic, interspersed with ironical episodes; a factory opening is scored to one of the score’s better straight-ahead crescendos, good for what it is:

The most interesting music ends up in a nightclub scene in which the despondent wrecker gets himself drunk, set to insinuating trombones and high saxophone lines.  Short episodes feature various, cartoonishly drawn barflies, but Denis Savin as the wrecker gets the highlight — After taking a swing at a rival, he performs a swaggering, drunken routine set to muscular music, with the glockenspiel occassionally piping in over heavy-footed brass and drums:

The set design tends toward angular and often foggy machinery, inspired by kitschy Socialist Realist designs; many backgrounds feature large, girder-like robots that sometimes wheel around slowly in between scenes, fulfilling the production’s recommended allowance of theatrical arbitrariness.  The final scene, with dancers whimsically costumed as navy ships and Red Army entertainers dressed in red vinyl, has fun with the propagandistic mess of the ballet’s original concept.  The music for the finale consists, mostly, of bright, carnivalesque numbers — there still isn’t much to grab onto musically but it’s solid music for a spectacle.

Opus 22: The Golden Age (1930)

September 28, 2010

The Golden Age, op. 22  (1930)
CD:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier (Naxos 8.570217-18)

The polka from The Golden Age — within the ballet, a parody of Western decadence that pops up in the middle of the third act — is one of Shostakovich’s most enduring numbers.  I was thinking the other day that the intermezzo from The Bedbug would be a more varied replacement but, really, it doesn’t outshine the polka’s wrong-note charm:

Besides the polka, which multiplies tribble-like within any growing Shostakovich collection, in the form of album fillers and transcriptions for other instruments, I was already familiar with the concert suite from the ballet (just as often translated as The Age of Gold), which presents some highlights but doesn’t hint at the vast and wild expanse of the full score.

Following the path of The Nose, the New Babylon score, and The Bedbug, the ballet continues to lean on what you could call the three Fs of Shostakovich’s late-1920s style:  feistiness, fretfulness, flexatones.  The only well-known ballet close to it stylistically is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (which you’ve likely heard some music from), written about five years later as that composer was transitioning back into the USSR, and superficially the scores have a similar Soviet-modernist shine.  Shostakovich even makes some incremental approaches towards Prokofiev’s melodic accessibility and lightness of touch, most winningly in the brief third scene:

Despite Shostakovich’s marginally greater generosity with grabby melodies and harmonies, as well as a larger rhythmic crumb (perhaps for the sake of being able to dance to it), the complete Golden Age is an equally brilliant and exhausting two and a half hours of music.  Scurrying episodes build violently into orchestral gigantism; the music veers between parodying the bourgeoisie and giving into its own giddy enthusiasm.  The “Tahiti Trot” gets an encore as the Act 3 entr’acte, with added saxophones.

Indeed, saxophones dominate Shostakovich’s orchestration, tying it back to dance hall music and that peculiar Soviet conception of jazz.  Shostakovich seems to enjoy mapping out the instrument’s possibilities:  In one striking and rather bizarre usage, the “Dance of the Black Man and Two Soviet Football Players”, a breathtakingly percussive sequence drops off to a leisurely, dimly American-folksy passage for saxophone and banjo:

A saxophone also opens the Adagio in Scene 2, carrying the ballet’s most extended moment of tenderness and sentimentality:

For stretches the music can sound like perpetually moving underscoring for the action onstage, but highlights abound as well.  The greatest joys for me lie in Shostakovich’s longer dramatic climaxes, when the music starts light but, gaining mass and momentum, barrels into a chaotic and unexpected place.  For example, the Act 1 conclusion (the track carries the evocative name “Foxtrot… foxtrot… foxtrot”) begins with the composer’s most literal representation of cabaret music yet:

But the textures thicken over the next minute or so into a pile-up like that in the second symphony.  Fans of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto will recognize the tune which emerges from the cacophony, as he reuses it less grandiosely in that later work:

Similarly, the Can-Can that ends Scene 5 begins nimbly:

And then, following up a crescendo and a dark turn at about the four-minute mark, it rushes into an almost perversely exuberant, minor-key finale:

The music in the final, sixth scene is generally weightier than what came before it, or perhaps by that point I was just worn down as a listener.  But even then the music has its charms — the “Scene of the Freeing of the Prisoners”, for one, features a nice transformation of the earlier foxtrot / eventual piano concerto theme.  The ballet perks up for its final dance, too, and ends in a characteristic, supersaturated whirlwind of sound, with just a touch of the major-key jubilance and triumphalism that would come to define (and be imposed upon) Soviet music through the coming decades.

The plot of the ballet concerns a Soviet football team that visits a “Golden Age of Industry Exposition” in the nonspecific Western city of U-town and, in between sporting events, apparently thwarts and/or is thwarted by Fascists, the Bourgeoisie, Agents Provocateurs, etc.  According to Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay for the Naxos disc, Shostakovich and the ballet’s original choreographer never precisely agreed on a scenario; the album’s synopsis and track titles draw from both schemes without providing any real detail.  (I’m not sure whether it’s more a sign of the times or of the youth of the artists involved, but a number of Shostakovich’s early collaborative efforts — see also New Babylon — seem more or less to have been disasters.)  In shopping for this work I saw a used VHS release of an ’80s-vintage Bolshoi Ballet production for sale, though Whitehouse notes that it featured a cut and re-edited score and (in an unpromising and oddly amusing phrase) “attempted a different, non-football approach”, so I’m happy to have run with this audio-only release.  The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds strong throughout — they also cut several excellent Shostakovich albums under Neemi Järvi a couple of decades ago — and José Serebrier directs with the necessary high energy and punch.

I recommend the disc, and the music:  Again, I found it hard to process, at least all at once and with my undivided attention, although there is a wealth of ingenious and extraordinary material here.  (Based on seeing The Nose live I suspect it would get the usual lift from an in-person performance, too, but still groan under its own weight by the end.)  I don’t subscribe to Naxos’ online music-streaming service — I spend too much of my daily life behind a corporate firewall to use it, although I’ve heard good things about it — but if you belong I suspect that would be an ideal way to listen through this album, since despite the abundant highlight’s it’s not likely to be a frequent or casual go-to.  I did find that I got more simple pleasure out of the music when I ran parts of it in the background of other tasks at the end of last week — while working, or washing the dishes — so although it feels wrong to say so (one should seek to be attentive and not distract oneself from their chosen task, etc.) the most effective place for this music may be in the background, or at least in the middle distance of some otherwise less interesting time.

A final point:  By now I have trouble imagining what this all sounds like to a non-fan of Shostakovich’s music, or someone not already deeply acquainted with his work.  To draw the analogy to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet again, I can remember first listening to that music in high school and finding it scintillating yet not very gripping, sometimes charming yet maddeningly willing to let an incipient big tune or juicy harmonic progression dissipate back into the musical ether before fully materializing; I suspect The Golden Age would have sounded like that and more so.  For my own part, it’s sheer pleasure to listen to a serious, large-scale Shostakovich work that’s essentially brand new to me.  Additionally, I love hearing how the abrasiveness and vitality of his early work — largely missing from his later, more familiar output, due largely to increasingly reactionary official tastes and, I think, to his own maturation as well — fits in with his stylistic development and his more popular style.  As a closing example, Shostakovich’s traditionally structured fifth symphony is typically taken as an aesthetic reversal in the face of ominous criticism from the state, and based on isolated musical examples it’s easy to find little connection between the frenetic, grenade-lobbing spirit of his early works and the famous symphony’s expressive, Mahlerian solidity.  Yet in listening closely through the course of Shostakovich’s early career, I hear the elements of his style which, pared down and finally invested with the tragedy of his experience, characterize his music after his supposed about-face.  I pointed out such a passage in the third symphony; here, as a closing example, is a moment within a Scene 4 dance in which the rhetoric of the fifth symphony begins to take form.