The Flying Inkpot — Dmitri Shostakovich – Jazz and Dance Suites — Naxos
Jazz Suites No.1 & 2
The Bolt / Tahiti Trot
Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Dmitry Yablonsky (Conductor)
Naxos 8.555949 Budget-price / Total time: 6214
Ballet Suites No.1-4
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Dmitry Yablonsky (Conductor)
Naxos Budget-price / Total time: 6007
by Chang Tou Liang
Here is something engaging about Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), that bespectacled, chain-smoking gentleman who looked perpetually ill at ease (as his many photographs attests), which many people arent always aware of. The doom and gloom that he wears on his sleeve in his 15 symphonies and equal number of string quartets is only one view of the multi-faceted Soviet-era Russian composer. While these most personal and painful of utterances, borne of years of emotional and mental (rather than physical) privations, formed a private chapter in his life, his popular and populist side came through publicly in his film scores and music for the stage.
My first exposure to this side of Shostakovich was in his affable pair of piano concertos and the ballet The Age of Gold. Avoid the late symphonies, cautioned my late grand-uncle who was an avid record collector. Anyone with a complete set of 15 Shostakovich symphonies on LP had to be taken seriously! So it was candy for the ears and harmless entertainment for a bit, which made the subsequent discovery of the First and Sixth Symphonies all the more palatable, even if these do not exactly constitute the proverbial bitter pill.
The truth is that Shostakovich was comfortable writing in all sorts of different styles. His stint as a teenager playing the piano for silent movies made him aware of popular styles, including that elusive and rather widely-encompassing genre called jazz. But there isn’t very much that’s jazzy in the two Jazz Suites other than the music employs popular idioms commonly heard in 1920s dancehalls, cabarets and nightspots. For instance, could Kurt Weill, whose style can be identified in Shostakovichs Jazz Suites, be called a jazz composer? The same applies to Shostakovich.
Saxophones, wind and brass instruments, sine qua non in jazz bands, all make their inevitable appearance. An electric guitar can be heard in the Foxtrot (Blues) movement of the First Jazz Suite. The 8-movement Second Jazz Suite (with the subheading Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra) with its parade of marches, polkas, gallops and waltzes – has more of the same and inspiration does wear thin after a while. Much of this was probably hackwork to the dead serious composer, but it kept the masses happy, his status as Soviet artist of the people secure, and paid for his electric bills. Notably, the 6th movement, Waltz 2, a first cousin to the Waltz in the First Jazz Suite, is that same zany tune that opens Stanley Kubricks movie Eyes Wide Shut. Improvisation there certainly isn’t.
Then there is that oddity called Tahiti Trot, a rather colourful orchestration of Vincent Youmans Tea for Two. Its strophic form lends possibilities for all sorts of variations, many involving the percussion including glockenspiel. As an encore, its a scream. It is certain that Shostakovich never visited Tahiti (the closest he got was most likely New York City), but the title must have appealed to him, sounding incredibly hip and exotic for the cloistered Leningrader.
The Ballet Suites date from the post Second World War period and assembles Shostakovichs earlier music for the stage and screen. The sources include the ballets The Limpid Stream and The Bolt, a documentary, a cartoon, a feature movie, incidental music to a play, and a couple of movements recycled from the First Jazz Suite. Ballet Suite No.5 is devoted wholly to music from The Bolt, a comedic Socialist-Realist ballet set in a communist factory where patriotic and hardworking employees triumph (what else?) over the slackers and bourgeois types. Again, this is hardly his best music, sounding largely generic but still bearing the inimitable and witty Shostakovich stamp.
Of the two CDs listed above, I would recommend to start listening with the first as it offers slightly more variety and music from The Bolt gives a better overview to Shostakovichs work in this genre. The completist tendency in the curious listener will naturally lead to the next recording, which offers more or less the same insouciant fare. Naxos has an earlier CD of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Christopher Lyndon-Gee in both Piano Concertos (with Michael Houstoun), Festive Overture and The Age of Gold Suite – that completes the picture. Musical diabetics those with a low threshold of tolerance for the sugary sweet – beware!
Both the Russian orchestras the long-established Russian State Symphony and the post-Cold War created Russian Philharmonic certainly have the pedigree to perform this music. The conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, a cellist by training and son of pianist Oxana Yablonskaya, keeps a tight rein on the proceedings. A plus point is that recording standards have come a long way since those dirt-cheap Melodiya discs when shrill blaring brass regularly threaten to do damage to your ear drums and speakers. The asking price for these Naxos discs is equally dirt-cheap, so they are definitely worth taking the risk on.
But do check out the competition. Neeme Järvi's Royal Scottish National Orchestra (on Chandos) has the five Ballet Suites, Katerina Ismailova Suite and Festive Overture neatly packaged in a mid-priced 2 CD box set. For the complete ballets of The Bolt and The Limpid Stream, there are no alternatives to veteran baton-wielder Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his Swedish forces, also on Chandos. Naxos stiffest competition will arrive when Decca eventually reissues Riccardo Chaillys three Shostakovich CDs The Jazz Album, The Dance Album and The Film Album with the ultra-slick Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at budget price. Shostakovich Lite has never had it so good!
TOU LIANG played the slow movement of Shostakovichs Second Piano Concerto at his
brothers church wedding, and has yet to ask for forgiveness!
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