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Shostakovich: The Film Album

Counterplan; Alone; The Tale of the Silly Little Mouse; Hamlet; The Great Citizen; Sofia Perovskaya; Pirogov; The Gadfly

Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertegebouw

Decca 460 792-2

David Aspinall
Cover Image

Dmitri Shostakovich began his involvement with film music as a piano accompanist to Soviet silents. His first film score, The New Babylon, (1929) is widely regarded as his best, though Hamlet (1964) has many admirers and several recordings. Likely this new recording will not win many new admirers to Shostakovich's film oeuvre. Those already devoted to the composer will already be familiar with most of the music here from previous recordings. On the other hand, the beginner, exploring these works perhaps for the first time, will not likely find enough substance here to tempt him to delve more deeply into the Shostakovich canon.

I am not among those who would rate Shostakovich's film music with his best work. Indeed much of what is here seems, to these ears, formulaic, sometimes trite. Most of these excerpts have pleasant moments, even more than pleasant, but there is nothing here that I would regret never hearing again (other than the elegant romance from The Gadfly, and even while enjoying this charming piece one cannot help but reflect on the coolness of its beauty born of the composer's habitual detachment). Counterplan is breezily tuneful; Alone is not far from Nino Rota in its ironic gaiety, but the symphonic Shostakovich shows up, and his characteristic gloom wins the day. Even the spooky music is about on a par with most of Universal's horror clichés, with the cartoon score Silly Little Mouse sounding like a vaguely depressed rodent.

I cannot rank DSCH's music for Kozintsev's Hamlet remotely close to William Walton's for Olivier's version. Only the "In the garden…" sequence strikes me as memorable. The funeral march from The Great Citizen starts with suitable gravity, but soon modulates into a mechanical tune and then inflates into orchestral bombast (not helped by the overbearingly recorded brass -- did the good citizen die of digitalis?) The waltz from Sofia Perovskaya reminds, again, of Nino Rota's melancholy muse, but its pleasant aftertaste is blasted away by more generic bombast, Pirogov, which is far less appetizing than its name sounds.

One could argue that the music Shostakovich wrote for these (mostly) Stalinist potboilers was hardly a labour of love. Precisely. My sympathies are extended to anyone who, like Shostakovich, is forced to knuckle under in his art. Yet all that said, the music is still distinctly sub-Dmitri, although this album will undoubtedly win a few prestige awards for the Decca/Chailly team's sheer temerity in attempting it.

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