SHOSTAKOVICH: New Babylon (complete).
Basel Sinfonietta/Mark Fitz-Gerald.
Naxos 8.572824-25 TT: 91:23 (2 CDs).

Incredible re-thinking of movie music. In 1929, the silent film New Babylon, written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, appeared as part of the last gasp of the Soviet avant-garde. The very first film score of Dmitri Shostakovich accompanied the drama.

The story concerns the uprising of workers and liberals to form the Paris Commune in 1871 and its brutal suppression. Most historical movies at the time emphasized spectacle, mass-movement set pieces, and costumes (think of Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Intolerance or DeMille's original Ten Commandments). Kozintsev and Trauberg had no interest in that kind of epic. They preferred to make their points at the edges of the big battles, not heroically or forthrightly but with irony and, to some extent, agitprop. The movie's title literally refers to a Parisian department store where the heroine works, but of course it points beyond to a corrupt bourgeoisie. Speaking of which, the scenes which show the moral rot of the rich seem to come right out of Griffith's Orphans of the Storm. Only the costumes have changed.

Shostakovich created a score that fits the movie like Spandex on a stripper. An hour-and-a-half of continuous music underscores and comments on each scene. The language, mainly anti-Romantic and sardonic, resembles very much the composer's works of the time, like The Nose, The Age of Gold, and the incidental music for The Bedbug. The orchestra is lean (only five strings) and relies heavily on wind, brass, and piano. His dramatic sense is keen, but his inexperience led to problems. The film was cut after Shostakovich had completed the score, thus throwing the music out of synch with the action, since he had conceived of the score continuously, rather than modularly. Shostakovich had to recompose to an extremely tight deadline. The copied parts had many errors. The conductor of the live orchestra, unused to the radical nature of the score, balked and made hash of it. The film flopped. The film and the score pretty much disappeared for a number of decades, although Kozintsev, Trauberg, and Shostakovich continued to get movie work.

The music bucks and bites, with a heavy satirical use of L' Marseilles and Offenbach's famous can-can to show the frivolity of the bourgeoisie as well as its duplicitous use of patriotism. Shostakovich displays such a sharp sense of stage picture and mood that you can almost see the images before you. Despite the many snaps and stings, the composer gives you moments of tenderness, cruelly lopped off. An old Communard finds a piano as part of the street barricades and sits down to play a "French Song" (actually a Jewish one). He goes on for a bit before a sniper picks him off.

Fitz-Gerald and his Baslers do a crisp, clean job.

S.G.S. (May 2012)