SHOSTAKOVICH: Ballet Suites Nos. 1-4 (Dmitry Yablonsky/ Dmitry Yablonsky/ Lubov Doronina/ Oleg Tokathev/ Russian Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557208)
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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Ballet Suites Nos. 1-4
Although the symphonies, string quartets and concertosrepresent the core of his achievement, Shostakovichevinced sympathies right across the musical spectrum:hence his oft-repeated comment that he enjoyed allmusic from Bach to Offenbach. Moreover, the revival inrecent years of such works as his 1958 musicalMoscow-Cheryomushki attests to a composer whoentered into the spirit of 'light music' with enjoymentand enthusiasm. Certainly the music on this disc willcome as a surprise to those who know Shostakovichonly as a 'serious' composer in the Beethoven tradition.
The four Ballet Suites occupy an equivocal positionin Shostakovich's output. The Zhdanov Decree, issuedby Minister of Culture Andrey Zhdanov as a directivefrom Stalin in January 1948, castigated Shostakovich,along with a number of leading Soviet composers, for'formalist perversions' such as made their musicunsuitable for the edification of the Soviet people. Fromthen until Stalin's death in March 1953, Shostakovichwrote 'serious' music strictly for the desk drawer andoccasional private performance. His public presencewas denoted by a stream of film scores and patrioticpieces - never less than expertly crafted, but offeringlittle or no indication of where his musical instinctstruly lay.
It is from this perspective that the Ballet Suitesshould be assessed: light music, seemingly incapable ofcausing offence, which made ideal material for radiobroadcasts and promotion through 'approved' Sovietoutlets. Editing was carried out by Lev Atovmyan(1901-1973), Shostakovich's amanuensis over manyyears, who also arranged suites from a number of thecomposer's film scores and official compositions. Thatthe constituent pieces were extracted mainly fromballets proscribed under the dictates of SocialistRealism was an irony of which those in charge werequite likely unaware.
Eleven of the 21 numbers here are taken from theballet The Limpid Stream: actually the name of acollective farm, where a musicians' collective entertainsthe farm-workers in a succession of dance routines,held together by the flimsiest of plots, that ought to havebeen a sure-fire success. Its premi?¿re in Leningradduring June 1935, followed by a Moscow staging thatNovember, had indeed attracted favourable notices, butthe falling-away of Shostakovich's reputation,following Pravda's denunciation of the opera LadyMacbeth of Mtsensk in January 1936, put paid to furtherproductions.
That this ballet was ideally suited to therequirements of 'light music' is evident in Ballet SuiteNo. 1 (1950). After a moody Lyric Waltz taken fromJazz Suite No. 1 (Naxos 8.555949) and more fullyorchestrated, there follow three numbers from TheLimpid Stream: a Dance faintly reminiscent of thescherzo from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony; ahalting, wistful Romance delicately scored forwoodwind and upper strings, and a lively Polka of thetype to which Shostakovich had recourse frequentlyover the years. Next comes an insouciant Waltz-scherzofrom the 1931 ballet The Bolt, and not included in thesuite (also known as Ballet Suite No. 5, Naxos8.555949), before a manic Galop from The LimpidStream (and used as an interlude in Moscow-Cheryomushki) concludes the sequence.
Two numbers from The Limpid Stream open BalletSuite No. 2 (1951), a rumbustious Waltz, and a lengthyAdagio which features an expressively-wroughtcontribution from solo cello. Jazz Suite No. 1 is thesource of the cavorting Polka that ensues, while theaptly-titled Sentimental Romance is taken from thelittle-known score that Shostakovich provided for the1934 animation film The Tale of a Priest and hisServant Balda. Meanwhile Michurin, the name of aneminent Russian horticulturist (1855-1935) and the titleof a 1948 film by Alexander Dovzhenko to whichShostakovich contributed music, provides the amiableSpring Waltz, and The Limpid Stream is accessed onceagain for the hectic Finale, in which an appearance of amotif from the closing number of The Bolt demonstratesShostakovich was second to none when it came torecycling worthwhile ideas between works.
Ballet Suite No. 3 (1952) is derived from twosources. The incidental music for Pavel Sukhotin's1934 production of Balzac's The Human Comedy yieldsthe lively opening Waltz, a fetching Gavotte, whichcould almost pass as a mid-century reorchestration ofDelibes or Messager, and an Elegy, whose main melodyranks among Shostakovich's most personable melodicinspirations. Before that, The Limpid Stream provides aDance which recalls - or rather anticipates - the famousGalop from Kabalevsky's ballet The Comedians, aswell as the final two numbers: a Waltz, which is theessence of the 'light music' aesthetic, and a Galopwhich propels the suite to a suitably energetic finish.
In contrast to its predecessors Ballet Suite No. 4(1953) features only three movements, each of which istaken from a different source. The Limpid Streamfurnishes a lengthy and, given the context, surprisinglysombre variation-sequence that constitutes the Prelude,building in a crescendo to a powerful climax, beforereturning to its initial calm. Song of the Great Rivers(also known as Unity), a 1954 documentary scarcelyknown in the West, provides the entertaining Waltz,while The Bolt is pressed into service for the Scherzothat provides an energetic conclusion to a suite whichwidens the emotional scope of the format in comparisonto those that came before it.
And that was that, as far as Ballet Suites wereconcerned. Rehabilitated as a composer followingStalin's death, and the success of his Tenth Symphony[Naxos 8.550326] spreading across Europe and theUnited States, Shostakovich felt able to begin releasingworks previously kept under wraps, and to reasserthimself as a major creative force. Yet given theconsistent quality of the music contained herein, as wellas the return to favour of the 'light music' genre, itseems a pity not to put extra-musical considerationsaside and enjoy these Ballet Suites for the pleasure theyundoubtedly provide.Richard Whitehouse