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This treasure trove of Shostakovich rarities presents four world premiere recordings. The music for the film The Girlfriends, newly reconstructed from various original sources including the 1934 soundtrack and a number of recently discovered Preludes,
The Shostakovich archaeological dig continues, and we receive the fruits of its efforts. In the case of this album, there's one remarkable movement torso, a fine film score, and a pair of suites of bland incidental music.
The real find here is a portion of the original first movement to the Symphony No. 9. David Fanning located it--321 bars in an untitled manuscript--pressed within the autograph score of The Gamblers at Moscow's Shostakovich Archive. This, along with ink and handwriting similarities, made for a tentative identification. The clincher was Fanning's discovery of three duplicate pages in a folder of unarranged Shostakovich autographs at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture, bearing a January 15, 1945, date. That matched to the month the point at which the composer began work on his Ninth. What we get is the full manuscript, lasting shy of seven minutes, with eight bars Fitz-Gerald provides for a final cadence.
This isn't the slyly satirical piece with an undertone of menace that we all know, cast in the dimensions of a Haydn symphony. The opening theme's motoric rhythms, rising motif, and abrupt thematic conclusion downwards to the tonic resemble Prokofiev in several respects. The rest is more typical of Shostakovich, with modal progressions, counterpoint, combat over thematic fragments between the strings and various winds, and an easy integration of the first theme's characteristics into the transformation/development. The effect of the whole is best likened to an exultant, massive force rolling irresistibly ahead. It sounds good, though I might make an uneducated guess both on internal grounds and on the basis of its part in Shostakovich's symphonic "war trilogy" that half again or more of the movement remained to be completed. Shostakovich didn't completely forget what he'd written, as the second theme ended up in a Violin Sonata in G Minor later that year; and when that work was in turn abandoned, it appeared in the 10th Symphony's first movement.
Lev Arnshtam was an old friend of Shostakovich's who ultimately became a distinguished film director. Of the four collaborations between the two men, The Girlfriends ("Podrugi"), finished in 1935, was the first. Its plot was a typical slice-of-life drama for the time: three girls grow up right before the fall of Tsarist Russia and decide to become nurses; all three end up at the front, and there are romantic entanglements; one dies, but the others carry on. The composer's score was extensive: at least 23 cuts (22 used in the final film), most of them two minutes in length or over, one lasting in excess of five. Shostakovich worked predominantly with chamber ensembles to create a form of unity, with some combination of piano, trumpet, and string quartet featured in most selections. There's also a small military band playing a rousing "Internationale," and another version of the same with a solo theremin that deserves to be separately noted. It frequently veers off the melody in long, eerie sweeps, not unlike a shortwave broadcast repeatedly losing and regaining its signal. This occurs when the girls are being evacuated by train at the last moment while under threat from advancing enemy troops, so it might have been an ingenious experiment by composer and director to provide a non-clichéd sense of rising tension. We'd have to see the results to judge, but the entire score is by turns richly expressive and clever. Shostakovich was supposedly proud of it, but it garnered no roses after its Soviet release during the Stalin-induced fallout from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Rule Britannia! , in turn, was a collection of six pieces for orchestra, two with chorus, which the composer wrote for Adrian Piotrovsky's play of the same name by the Leningrad Theater of Working Youth. The play was never produced, however, and Piotrovsky was arrested and executed during Stalin's 1938 purges. Salute to Spain was part of the rehabilitation process the composer was forced to go through in 1936. It was a short collection of incidental pieces written at the command of the Leningrad City Council for a play by Alexander Afinogenov. Neither suite pretends to be more than what it is, and that is the primary virtue of both. But the level of inspiration in these hack works is far, far lower than in the film scores.
As to the performances, Fitz-Gerald moves from the Frankfurt RSO last heard in the film score, Alone (Naxos 8.570316), to the Polish National RSO here, without much perceivable change in energy or character--surely the sign of a fine conductor who can communicate well with different ensembles. He and his orchestra create quite the impression with the fragmentary Ninth Symphony; if not the last word in technical finesse, it has the fervor, edge, clarity, and rhythm-based momentum that the composer requires. As much can be said for the Camerata Silesia and its individual musicians, who make up the smaller ensembles in The Girlfriends . A tip of the hat to Fitz-Gerald, too, in his capacity as reconstructive editor and all-around Shostakovich booster. Celia Sheen does an admirable job with the touchy theremin, and Kamil Barczewski provides an acceptable if throaty bass soloist in Salute to Spain.
Unusually scholarly notes by Olga Digonskaya, Peter Bromley, John Riley, Fitz-Gerald, and above all, David Fanning. (Be sure to catch the minor bombshell in Fanning's footnote to the material on the Ninth.) Definitely recommended to serious Shostakovich collectors. -- Fanfare, Barry Brenesal, 13 October 2009
This disc may be aimed more at the Shostakovich completist, but it's no less wonderful for that. The Girlfriends is a major film score dating from the same time in the 1930s as the scandal surrounding Stalin's denunciation of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. Scored lightly, for string quartet, piano, trumpet, and larger forces only in a couple of numbers, the music is mostly lyrical, attractive, and (given the composer and the period) remarkably sensitive. Some of it had to be reconstructed from the actual film soundtrack, but conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald has done his job excellently, and he leads a sensitive and cogent performance of the 23 brief movements that comprise the complete score.
Rule, Britannia! and Salute to Spain both fall into the composer's Socialist Realist hackwork, but I have to confess that the music is fun: brash, often militant, noisy, and unashamedly populist. The former strongly recalls the musical language of the Third Symphony, only it's less garish and more tuneful. There seems to be some confusion concerning one of the songs in Salute to Spain, "Miy Idyom", which means "We are going [on foot]" but that the note-writer translates for some strange reason as "My Idiom". In any case, no one knows what song was actually intended for the stage production, so an anti-Fascist Spanish Civil War song makes an appropriate substitute. Fitz-Gerald's conducting is really exciting in these two suites, and the orchestral playing is excellent as well.
Potentially the most interesting item here is the six-and-one-half-minute incomplete movement of what Shostakovich originally planned as his Ninth Symphony. Fans of the composer will recognize one of the themes as a loud version of the Tenth Symphony's first-movement second subject (the limping waltz for clarinet). As for the rest, it's clear why Shostakovich abandoned his initial effort: the remaining ideas (or should I say "idea", as there's only one) are uninteresting, the music uniformly loud and heavily scored. Still, as I said, this is a disc for connoisseurs, and you can only admire the composer's self-discipline in scrapping this effort in favor of the delightful Ninth Symphony we all know and love. Go for it. [6/1/2009] -- ClassicsToday.com, David Hurwitz, June 1, 2009