New Babylon (1929)/Shostakovich

November 28, 2011

It’s so nice to see Shostakovich finally get the recognition he deserves for the soundtrack material he wrote during his composing career. This is the third Shostakovich project that Mark Fitz-Gerald has recorded for Naxos, the other two being Alone (8.570316) and Girlfriends (8.572138). In addition Delos has re-released five Russian Disc recordings from the 90’s and Chandos has released material for 2 CD’s as part of  their film music series. While there have been recordings of the silent film New Babylon this new Naxos offering (8.572824) offering performed by Basel Sinfonietta offers two firsts. The string section consisting of five players was added to the new recording “… which immediately creates both greater clarity and enhanced character…” wrote Mark Fitz-Gerald in the liner notes. The original scoring, which was played and performed by the salon orchestra of Ferdinand Krish, had a maximum of 14 players, which was the number of parts that Shostakovich wrote. Included in the original orchestration but not in this release is the use of an obscure percussion instrument, the flexatone quite popular in variety shows in the 20’s. Shostakovich was 22 at the time, very much a free spirit and created a very unique soundtrack for this silent film. He had not yet been beaten down by the political system he had to endure for the majority of his composing life. If this is your first experience with this material you’re in for a real treat as you’ll hear a carefree sound you’ve likely never heard before. The film directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg deals with the Prussian invasion of Paris in July 1870. In his memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich had this to say about his first film. “Films have generally meant nothing but trouble for me, beginning with my first one New Babylon. I’m not talking about the so-called artistic side. That’s another story and a sad one, but my political side began with New Babylon.

The score is divided into eight acts with each one constituting one roll of film. The bonus track is the original ending of the 8th reel. Reel No. 1 offers a lively mocking melody from the trumpets with the horns, trombone, percussion and strings complimenting them. It is a tonal movement that is allowed to fully develop and is really a lot of fun with constant changing of tempo and mood. Even though Shostakovich is having fun with this it is also mournful like his sound in later years. Just as it appears to go into one key and perhaps dissonant and atonal it quickly changes. The wind section is featured in the second part with clarinet, flute, and bassoon all having their opportunity. Reel No. 2 starts with a fanfare and we’re given more orchestration like the first reel with the addition of Offenbach’s “We All Need Love.” Part of the orchestration includes a reference to “Can-can” from Orpheus in the Underworld. Shostakovich is somewhat circus like in his approach to this. The reel also gives the trumpets and trombone a workout! Reel No. 3 changes to an adagio pace with melody not being important. There is an unusual combination of trombone and bassoon performing together, something you won’t hear very often. The bassoon in disguise offers the Marseillaise theme. At the end of the reel you hear snare drum with tremolo tension from the strings. Reel No. 4 begins with the lower bowels of the orchestra the double bass and the bassoon in a very dark opening with a cleverly hidden reference to the Marseillaise. Tension mounts from the strings as the horns offer up a dose of dissonance. The overall feeling is one of chamber like but quickly shifts gears to the style of gaiety found in the opening track. The cue also features a straight forward arrangement of the Marseillaise with further references being made to “Can-can.” Tremolo from the strings creates an air of tension beginning Reel No. 6 with references to Marseillaise before the mood changes to one of dissonance from the brass. The reel ends with a short piano offering of Tchaikovsky’s “Old French Song.” Reel No. 7 begins in solemn underscore. The mood shifts to a flute fluttering very upbeat followed by a return to the gaiety that we heard in the beginning being replaced with solemn material. Reel No. 8 is very grave paced with a solo from the bassoon. Gone is the fun love material we heard in the beginning, being replaced with funeral like material. Reel No. 8 Original Ending is a buildup of tension as Shostakovich makes use of the “Dies Irae” motif cleverly disguised. Powerful chords bring the reel to a conclusion.

This is a wonderful recording that offers a complete version of this first effort of Shostakovich doing film music. When you are listening remember that the year was 1929 and this was quite radical. The influence of Stravinsky is evident from the very beginning. Repeated listens will further enhance your listening pleasure. It is well recorded and in addition there are wonderful liner notes from John Riley, Mark Fitz-Gerald, and Nina Goslar. This would make a welcome addition to your Shostakovich collection.

Naxos CD# is 8.572824-25 (2 CD set)

Track Listing:

Reel 1: General Sale. ‘War-Death to the Prussians’ (9:02)

Reel 2: Head over Heels. ‘Paris’ (10:01)

Reel 3: The Siege of Paris (10:51)

Reel 4: 18th March 1871. ‘On the morning of 18th March the workers still guarded their guns (13:21)

Reel 5: Versailles against Paris. ‘Paris has stood for centuries’ (10:21)

Reel 6 The Barricade. ‘The 49th day of defence’ (14:51)

Reel 7: To the firing squad. ‘There is peace and order in Paris’ (10:39)

Reel 8: Death. ‘The trial’ (8:11)

Reel 8 (continued): Original ending (4:07)

Total time is 1:31:23

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