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Dmitri Shostakovich: New Babylon Op. 18 (World premiere recording of the complete score)
basel sinfonietta, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Conductor)
Recorded at the Volkshaus, Basel, Switzerland (1st to 3rd May, 2011) – 91’23
NAXOS Ref. #: 8.572824-25 – Booklet with essays about the film and music in English

Dmitri Shostakovich, who learned the craft of live cinema accompaniment, as a cinema pianist in the early 20s, scored the 1929 silent film “New Babylon” an expressionist masterpiece co-directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, was Shostakovich’s first film score. Its requisite orchestration was more than movie houses could accommodate, so was condensed to piano fragments and worse.

The fully realized score has been recovered by conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald and basel sinfonietta, recorded earlier this year and released by Naxos, in a sterling performance of a disabused and forgotten classic in a late, but no less impressive premiere.

The circumstances of its first public performance make it all the more amazing and reflective of the composer’s subsequent work under the eye of the Stalin government. Shostakovich’s collaboration with artistic rebels Kozintsev and Trauberg, founders of the subversive Factory of the Eccentric Actor theatrical troupe, were nonetheless commissioned for New Babylon.

The title refers, satirically, to a Paris department store, rather than such grand metaphysical themes of, say, Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. But it is a polemic on divided Marxist-Leninist ideologies and warring patriotic loyalties. The film dramatizes an 1870 event about a Paris Commune and the working class that took control of the city after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. French proletariats are demoralized when the army surrenders, leading to a populous resistance over their own government leads to class warfare.

From a musical standpoint, this is a dazzling composition and basel sinfonietta illuminates this music to capture the kinetic mystique of silent cinema music, vaulting musical forms, notation and accents that largely vanished with the silent film era. Shostakovich composed acts (or “reels”) of approximately ten to thirteen minute movements, in expositional narrative form.

Nationalist music surfaces unexpectedly- the Marseilles, sardonic waltzes, for instance, as well as café, can-can or carnival atmospherics, with various implications. “War- Death to the Prussians” segues into “Head over Heels, Paris” is a brew of brassy Russian brio with burnished horny Moulin-Rouge farce. The gathering disparate moods in “The Siege of Paris” with its disquieted strings, scarred fanfares is a transporting mise-en-scène. More ominous quietude and frenzy comes in the woodwind and string counterpoints underscoring the scenes “18th March 1871” exposé of opposing loyalties in “Versailles against Paris.” The longest section- “The Barricade” underscores battle, the shell-shocked adrenalin of the strings, then the engulfing dirge.

Shostakovich’s soaring symphonics are cinematic in the best “epic” sense. Aside from the historical narrative, there is character scoring that is very much a part of the visual story which is as John Riley writes in the liner notes “inseparable companion” to the film. But, Shostakovich is in such top form that it is also a stand-alone musical work. Considering it editorially, from a post-Revolution, pre-Stalinist standpoint, it may be inferred in hindsight. This is exemplar to how composers were part of the narrative magic of silent film. Without words and flashcard dialogue, the complexities of plot and character had much more expressivity through the music. Conductor Fitz-Gerald and basel sinfonietta have restored this major work to its rightful artistic place as a Shostakovich masterpiece, as well as a found chapter in film music history.

Lewis Whittington




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