Very few classical composers have the naglost (or the desperation, depending on who you ask) to risk their careers and compose for film, even with the lure of higher pay. Most famous composers such as Prokofiev, Copland, Corigliano, etc. have only done a handful of film scores. Korngold carved out a highly successful film career, to the detriment of his concert career. But Dmitri Shostakovich is arguably the most prolific major composer whose scores have not entered the consciousness of the film music fan base.
Shostakovich composed the scores to 36 films, most of which have rarely been seen outside of Russia. Even the scores have seldom been heard in their entirety outside of the films. Excellent suites have been recorded on the Chandos and Capriccio labels. But for complete performances of the scores, you have to turn to Naxos. The label continued that tradition last year with a stunning recording of the complete score to ODNA (ALONE) (1931). Last month saw the release of the complete score to PODRUGI (THE GIRLFRIENDS) (1935), the story of three childhood friends who grow up to be nurses in the Russian Civil War.
The film premiered overseas, and not Russia, in late 1935, generating good word of mouth. Shostakovich had been riding high witth his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk winning over audiences in Moscow, Leningrad, and abroad. But in early January 1936, the notorious “Chaos Instead of Music” editorial appeared in Pravda condemning the opera. No composer or musician of such stature had ever been publicly rebuked. Shostakovich’s life and career were in jeopardy, as was every Soviet artist who didn’t please the State. As a result, his score for THE GIRLFRIENDS was lost in the political tumult.
Fans expecting Shostakovich’s bombastic symphonic style may be unprepared for THE GIRLFRIENDS’ chamber music sonorities. Scored mainly for string quartet with additional piano and trumpet, the score is far more delicate than some of his other scores. But thankfully, the biting, sarcastic quality that earmarks Shostakovich’s music are ever present.
Not until the last couple of tracks does the full orchestra participate. Fans of Russian vocal music will enjoy hearing the a capella versions of famous revolutionary songs like “Tormented by a Lack of Freedom” and “The Internationale.”
Shostakovich was one of the first composers to experiment with a new musical instrument called the theremin. Film music fans will recognize the instrument’s eerie sounds from famous scores such as SPELLBOUND and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. In THE GIRLFRIENDS, Shostakovich uses the instrument to give “The Internationale” a surreal quality. Listening to the track, you can read much into the music and what may have been going through Shostakovich’s mind at the time.
I’d have to agree with the film’s director, Lev Arnshtam, and composer Mikhail Cheremukhin, who both remarked at the time on the fragmentary quality of the score. There is no single theme or motif running throughout the score to give it a cohesive feel. Still, I’d love to see the film to hear how Shostakovich made these disparate tracks gel within a cinematic framework. Conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald is to be commended for what must have been an incredibly difficult task of transcribing most of the score by ear from the film’s soundtrack.
Fans of Shostakovich’s orchestral output will be more interested in the suites from incidental music for the plays Rule, Britannia! and Salute to Spain. While Shostakovich more obviously caters to the Party line in this music, it’s hard to deny the enjoyment of the music.
The last track of the disc is a symphonic fragment that would later appear in the composer’s Symphony No. 9. This fragment sows the seeds of the popular symphony, and yet shows the composer knew exactly what to keep and what to discard.
No fault can be found with Fitz-Gerald’s conducting of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. The music sounds fresh and alive. This disc may only appeal to Shostakovich completists and die-hard fans of his film music, like myself. But Naxos should be encouraged to continue their exploration of Shostakovich’s film music in all its pungent—and sometimes faded—glory.