Archive for the ‘Orchestrations’ Category

Opus 17: Two Pieces by Scarlatti (1928)

September 20, 2010

Two Pieces by Scarlatti, op. 17 (1928)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Soloists Ensemble, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Following Shostakovich’s “Tea for Two” arrangement in the catalog are two more transcriptions, these pieces by the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) scored for a small wind band.

This is an extremely minor outpost of Shostakovich’s oeuvre and so I had the benefit, if you’d call it that, of coming into it almost completely cold:  I didn’t know the Shostakovich work, I don’t know the original Scarlatti works, I didn’t read the album liner notes (which offer only one sentence about opus 17), and I don’t know anything about why Shostakovich chose to arrange these pieces or use this particular instrumentation.  It’s a fun prospect to get introduced to an unknown work by a familiar composer, even if in this case it is seven-plus minutes of reorchestrated Baroque music:  Primarily, is it any good to listen to?  But also, what seems to be its intent; why does it exist?  What’s Shostakovich’s angle?

I don’t want to overstate the “why” questions, especially for an obviously minor work — a symphony has something of a thesis, while a little concert work often enough just aims to please.  But even at that, my first impression of the first piece, the Pastorale, was that it doesn’t have much reason for being.  It’s a colorful arrangement, and charming enough, but it feels arbitrary in how it divides its melodic lines among the wind instruments.  (Nothing like Anton von Webern’s reworking the geometry of Bach’s “Musical Offering” by divvying up the subject, not that either Shostakovich’s source material or transcription aspire to those works’ serious-mindedness.)  I didn’t hear much of Shostakovich in it, save for a barely perceptible trace of his humor in the way he isolates a quick descending run in the clarinet:

The phrase “Ted Turner colorization” sprang to mind on that first hearing (not that I remember seeing any colorized movies on TNT, but I do remember reading Orson Welles’ late-in-life injunction, referring to Citizen Kane, to “keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie”).  Shostakovich’s bright instrumentation, combined with the characteristically reedy sound of eastern European woodwinds and some wobbly moments in the performance, gives it just a little bit of garishness.

From the beginning of the Capriccio that follows, though, Shostakovich makes Scarlatti’s music much more his own, adding some modern musical slapstick (I’m thinking mainly of more of those short trombone slides) and tweaking the overall tone into slightly folksy comedy:

When I wrote earlier that “Tahiti Trot” doesn’t have an ironic posture, the Capriccio’s is the kind of attitude I was referring to.  There’s nothing cold or mean-spirited in it, but Shostakovich’s orchestration seems inherently self-conscious, as though in recasting (and gently parodying) part of a Scarlatti keyboard work as a miniature orchestral farce it necessarily calls attention to itself.  I had more fun listening to this one; I’m a big fan of the young Shostakovich’s high-spirited musical clownishness and I like hearing new instances of it.

All that said, after listening to both pieces just a couple more times the above first impressions, as over-thought as they look on the page, do soften and fade into each other — on a subsequent pass I hear more humor in the first piece, while the farcical elements jump out less, and seem less self-aware, in the second.  What happens to first impressions (of music, or of anything) as you record back over theme is a topic for another time, as is, perhaps, what happens when you listen to something with too much intent to come away with a solid opinion of it; these are already too many words to spend on a pleasantly witty footnote to Shostakovich’s compositional career.

Opus 16: “Tahiti Trot” (“Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans) (1927)

September 17, 2010

“Tahiti Trot” (“Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans), op. 16 (1927)
CD:  “Shostakovich: The Jazz Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (London 433 702 – 2; currently issued on Decca)

“Tahiti Trot” is Shostakovich’s first work in chronological order that I have deep, abiding, warm feelings for.  I’ve been listening to this track consistently since I was in high school and by now it’s become like musical comfort food, soothing and enjoyable for its well-worn familiarity.  I think most people have songs like this; mine happens to be Soviet light-orchestra music, which feels slightly embarrassing, but so be it.

The tune is Vincent Youmans’ jazz standard “Tea for Two”, which, still new in the late 1920s, apparently swept the USSR much as it did the U.S.  (There it was retitled “Tahiti Trot”, I guess to appeal more to the foreign market or to preserve the alliteration in translation.)  Shostakovich legendarily reorchestrated it on a bet, from memory and in less than an hour; for a while his formidably charming arrangement became one of his own greatest hits in his home country.

It’s a humorous setting but, in contrast to the music of to the soon-to-be-completed The Nose, there’s no ironic posture in it, no cool or self-conscious framing.  Shostakovich embraces the catchiness of the melody and, over the piece’s three and a half minutes, presents it in a series of amiable instrumentations.  It’s bright and original, though barely continuous with the wilder colors of the opera and the second symphony, except perhaps for a preponderance of mallet percussion and some gently jokey trombone glissandi:

I love the rich strings at the end of that excerpt above — in the hard-to-place way that an orchestration sounds characteristic of a composer, it just sounds like Shostakovich.  And since “Tea for Two” is one of my favorite earworms on its own, they are, as the Reese’s folks used to say, two great tastes that taste great together.  I don’t think it should push Ella Fitzgerald out of anyone’s heart but it’s a worthy version of the song.

Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is a justly popular album and the first essential Shostakovich disc of this blog-through.  (A disclaimer:  Nothing on the album remotely resembles actual jazz music, even by the standard of “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman‘s orchestra in 1920s America.)  And you really should listen to it as a full album, as the selections balance each other nicely and show off a good swath of the composer’s lighter side:  Besides the “Tahiti Trot” it includes Shostakovich’s quirkily orchestrated Jazz Suite No. 1; the less idiosyncratic but still fun Suite for Promenade Orchestra (now and seemingly forever mislabeled as his Jazz Suite No. 2), whose Waltz No. 2 became an improbable breakout hit from the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack and an Andre Rieu party piece; and, bridging the divide between Shostakovich’s light music and his more serious concert fare, his first piano concerto.  Chailly directs everything with a light touch and glossy charm; it’s just a delightful disc.  I’ve found that as I’ve dug into Shostakovich’s bigger, more psychologically complex works (most of the symphonies, the string quartets) that knowing his straightforward song-and-dance works helps me appreciate what’s going on in the light-music episodes (frequently distorted and caustic) that constantly occur within his bigger canvasses.  More than that, though, it’s just the other, brighter side of his stylistic coin, well-crafted and worthy music on its own terms.

No opus number: Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1921)

August 27, 2010

Orchestration of “I waited in the grotto” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (No opus number, 1921)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1982 (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich’s arrangement of this Rimsky-Korsakov song, very much a student exercise, serves as another indicator of the tradition in which his musical training took place.  In the text, a poem by A.N. Maykov, a lover describes waiting for, and ultimately being stood up for, a nighttime tryst; the young composer (still about fifteen years old) scales up Rimsky-Korsakov’s accompaniment into a shimmering, though not especially nocturnal, orchestral backing, in line with the senior composer’s coloristic style.  In the recording at hand soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva’s lucid voice fits nicely with the instrumental effects.

I don’t know Rimsky-Korsakov’s original setting and the Melodiya disc doesn’t contain a libretto.  Maykov’s words in the original Russian are online at REC Music’s Lied and Art Song Texts Page, without an English translation.  I don’t speak any Russian but plugging the whole affair into Google Translate, as of this writing, seemingly provides enough of a sense of the trajectory of the poem to get by on:  The speaker waits at night in the grotto, describes the landscape and the moonlight, and finally reveals that the other never arrived.  The machine translation is awkward and rather inscrutable (“thinning night mistress mullet”), but I’m impressed by the state of the art and I think it’s a good fallback when listening to foreign-language vocal music without a translated text.