Music composed by Dmitry Shostakovich.
Disc One: 4 Tracks (Playing Time = 43:15)
Disc Two: 5 Tracks (Playing Time = 48:08)
Performed by the Basil Sinfonietta conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Album produced, edited, and mastered by Andreas Werner. Recorded at the Volkshaus, Basel, Switzerland, May 1-3, 2011. Liner notes by David Robinson, John Riley, Nina Gosler, and Mark Fitz-Gerald.
Dmitry Shostakovich remains one of the 20 th Century’s finest symphonists having continued the form often in Mahlerian proportions. The way the symphonies often are orchestrated with unusual combinations of orchestral color and the way that Shostakovich tends to latch onto dance-like forms in these and other works may have taken root in his twenties. While composing and carving out a career there, he worked as a pianist at the local cinema. The work was supposed to get him along until his composing career took off. It also would give him ideal training for resulting film scoring.
A decade into the revolution, artistic endeavors celebrating the “new” and unusual were still encouraged as a part of a regime interest in developing the arts in the new Communist regime. Into that expectation lands the film NEW BABYLON. The film itself originally would have mystified audiences with its non-traditional, and non-linear, storytelling. When the project began, that was not so much a problem, but by the time the film was completed, artistic expectations had changed. The “art for art’s sake” encouragement of the previous decade had given way to a “proletarian” movement requiring media that must be easily comprehensible for the masses. That shift would result in severe editing of the final film including rewrites of its score. The resulting mess, for lack of a better term that was the critical reaction, resulted in the film and its score essentially disappearing.
Shostakovich initially composed some 90 minutes of music for the film. The rewrite requests came at an inopportune time with the composer languishing from a severe case of the flu. Page by page was handed off from his sick bed and the resulting manuscripts appear to be a jumbled mess at times. The film itself would continue to be resurrected in its truncated form. Research over the last quarter century has managed to restore much of the excised footage. The availability of the score material from various sources has also led to a performable edition which is the text for this new Naxos release.
The film follows the period of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. Soldiers march off to war early in the film while the gaiety of Parisian life seems to continue without fear. The war itself being a bit of gamesmanship between the German forces and the recent French Communists will end very badly for the latter following a lengthy siege of Paris. The film follows the essential failure of the Communards who end up digging their own graves in the film’s final reel. The original ending is a bit bitter with crushed hopes and dreams and a bit more cynical worldview. The censored ending instead suggests that this is only a temporary setback and that the Communards will rise again. One can sense already the philosophical shifts that would begin to impact Soviet art and life.
The music for NEW BABYLON, spread over eight reels, is filled with plenty of music that is perfectly cast in the voice of the young Shostakovich. It is at times devilishly difficult, which no doubt was a problem for the pit orchestras of the period used to the reusing of classical Romantic excerpts. The sheer energy of the music is one of its most immediately engaging features. The galop-like rhythms appear in reel one and will recur throughout the score in stark contrast to deeply moving lyrical segments. Shostakovich loves to cast solo winds (especially staccato bassoon lines) against trumpet ideas and fast moving strings in this score. It is a rather unique sound that will be explored more in concert works.
The score itself is a mix of original music and borrowed themes. The latter include Offenbach’s famous “Can-Can” from The Tales of Hoffman and “Le Marseillaise.” The quotations are often transformed within the score in ways that differ from similar silent film scores that survive in America from the period. And the comedic factor of Shostakovich’s choices are always in full display. In fact, one is reminded more of the way composers like Max Steiner would quote familiar music in the context of their scores in the 1930s and beyond. This is one aspect of NEW BABYLON that will make it equally fascinating for listeners.
Most fascinating in this score is the emotional content of the music. The score is not intent on highlighting specific punctuations but more expressing the fabric of scenes adding a depth to the on-screen images. One might say the music helps provide some context for the viewer once Shostakovich has set up some of the accompanying musical orchestration in reel one. The lightness of the film shifts in reel four which depicts the massing of the Prussians for their assault on Paris while rehearsals of Offenbach continue. Musically this is really one of the more intriguing sequences of the score with its dark dissonances contrasted with a variety of solo wind and violin ideas. The recording also allows listeners to compare the censored and original endings for reel eight reconstructed from fragments that hopefully come close to the original intent of the score.
The recording is conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald who continues to make some of the finest early film music recordings available. For this release, Fitz-Gerald has chosen to recreate the score using the size ensemble most likely to have performed the music. His decisions come from having toured the Russian cinemas where the film was first shown and getting a sense of the spatial set-up of the orchestra itself. The result is that strings and winds are one to a part, trumpets and horns are doubled and there are a couple of percussion players. The music sounds clear and crisp as a result and much more like a chamber work. One is struck at how brilliant the entire ensemble does sound however and the recording equally aids this process with proper sound imaging.
NEW BABYLON has appeared on disc before. Most recently a Hannler Classic recording (93.188) featured an edition prepared for screenings of the film with Frank Strobel. That recording also features a suite from Shostakovich’s film score for A YEAR IS LIKE A LIFETIME resulting in a fuller 2-disc set than the one presented here. The recording also shifted to a larger string complement as well.
Fitz-Gerald’s release is a welcome addition to the discography allowing another valid treatment of this early film score. The decision to recreate the pit orchestra is to be equally lauded. Additional musical fragments and pages have also been discovered since the 2006 Hanssler release allowing Naxos to state that this is the “World Premiere Release” of the complete score. Both releases are tracked by reels/acts and subtle adjustments to music means that playing times are somewhat similar. Fitz-Gerald’s tempos may be slightly quicker in spots than Strobel’s. The latter recording is a good example of how to play to picture while the new release is a great demonstration of what these ensembles would have sounded like had they been capable of understanding this often “strange” new music. Naxos also includes fine essays that allow for a deeper understanding of the period and process of the film, though there is a bit of duplication across the different contributor’s information. Finally, the members of the Basel Sinfonietta are simply fantastic in this performance with clean articulation and a real sense for how this music connects with the style.
This late 2011 release is yet another of Naxos’ superb early film music releases and is not to be missed.
Both this and the earlier release are worth adding to your collection as they present two valid and well-crafted performances of this fascinating early Shostakovich score.
-- Reviewed by Steven A. Kennedy, 26 January 2012
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