CD Review: Dmitri Shostakovich adapted to world of silent film with fanciful musical invention
Most film scores make for poor companions when listening for pleasure, because they're the musical equivalent of MSG in food -- and enhancer of the main event, not something to be consumed by itself. But Dmitri Shostakovich's second film score, for the 1931 film Alone (the Russian title is Odna), is so full of invention that this album is worth picking up if you're a fan of his other music. He was 25 when this film was released, and all the building blocks of this later output -- how he develops a motifs, harmonic changes, rhythm and orchestration -- are clearly in place.
This is not a new recording, merely a reissue of the first reprise of the composer's original score, made back in 1995, a couple of years after the world discovered the film itself (click on the disc image for details).
Odna was made to encourage Soviets to embrace collective agriculture (young female teacher gives up the urban bustle of Leningrad for the privations of Siberia, where she will educate pagan children forced to work on uncollectivized farms). It's a silent film that includes a couple of short bursts of dialogue. Shostakovich worked part-time as a silent-film accompanist in his student days, so he knew exactly what this medium needed. There is a 2008 Naxos disc by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra that also includes the Overture (replaced by silence in the film) and a later Interlude.
I haven't listened to the Naxos CD, but the Delos album is nicely done, with the tracks laid out chronologically and repetitions cut. This is not a film-music suite, so everything comes in bite-sized chunks. The Byelorussian Radio and TV Orchestra is clear, balanced and sharp under the baton of veteran Russian conductor Walter Mnatsakanov. There is also some nice work by the Minsk Chamber Choir.
The pleasure here is realising how much the composer can do with short melodic figures. He has a full symphony orchestra at his disposal, but ignores using the strings as a large ensemble (in the style of Hollywood) in favour of stark, minimal textures that use a lot woodwinds. The opening, urban scenes are brittle-bright, while the Siberian outback gets much moodier sonic treatment.
Because much of the music here is rich in rhythm, I think it could be adapted into a fantastic ballet score. My favourite segment is one of the longest: a meandering, almost sensual, bassoon solo called "Altai: Andantino" that lasts nearly 8 minutes.
I was also trying to figure out how I could keep listening to the music on this CD. The 72 minutes of music don't work for me as an uninterrupted listening experience, but, individual sections would make great iPod fodder.
Thanks to a Japanese old-movie fan, Odna is available for viewing on YouTube. The soundtrack was so poorly recorded, that the 1995 recording barely sounds like the same score.
Here is the opening sequence, followed by two sections from the depths of Siberia (filmed at a real location in Khazakstan). The subtitles are in Japanese, so English-readers are out of luck. Because the Overture is missing, the opening credits are totally silent: