Bits, Pieces Culled From Shostakovich Made Whole Cloth

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Naxos’ latest Shostakovich project pairs rare scores from the composer’s 20s, as reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald.

Shostakovich: The Bedbug; Love and Hate. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Mannheim Opera Choir, Mark Fitz-Gerald (conductor). Naxos 8.574100. Total Time: 58:56

DIGITAL REVIEW – Mark Fitz-Gerald has been carrying the ball for Naxos in unearthing, reconstructing, and conducting lost or forgotten Shostakovich scores – some of which even devotees didn’t know about. Probably the most fascinating find so far was a symphonic fragment that was Shostakovich’s first stab at a Ninth Symphony (Naxos 8.572138). This labored, massively scored, turbulent thing surely would have led to the pompous, end-of-the-war, all-praise-to-Stalin finale everyone was expecting instead of the flippant little Ninth Symphony that he ended up writing.

What is surprising about one of Fitz-Gerald’s latest salvage operations, the incidental music to the Vladimir Mayakovsky comedy The Bedbug, is that it’s not better known, given its prominence in the composer’s alleged memoir, Testimony. It’s an early (1929) score, an artifact from the Soviet avant-garde arts scene before Stalin clamped down when the 23-year-old Shostakovich was full of energy, wild ideas, and slapstick humor.

Having admired Mayakovsky from afar through his work, Shostakovich changed his tune considerably once he started working with him. “I can readily say,” he says in Testimony, “that Mayakovsky epitomized all of the traits of character I detest: phoniness, love of self-advertisement, lust for the good life, and most important, contempt for the weak and servility before the strong.” (Mayakovsky committed suicide the following year after a dispute with a mistress).

Russian Futurist poet-playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910. (Wikipedia)

As a response to the play – a farce involving petty bourgeois vulgarians and an idealistic Communist world of the future – and maybe also as a slap at Mayakovsky, The Bedbug is a delightfully zany series of short cues and dances that fit right in with Shostakovich’s ballets and light music from the period. Mayakovsky wanted firemen’s band music in his play, and so the young mischief maker gave it to him, but with satirical twists like deliberate wrong notes, sliding trombones, oompah brass, and even whoops and whining from the newly invented theremin. American jazz as filtered through Kurt Weill turns up; so does a Russian chorus.

Naxos claims this is a “world premiere recording,” but there is an earlier recording by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, albeit one which omits the Foxtrot and Galop that Fitz-Gerald orchestrated from the piano score. While I can imagine a more pointed, funny performance than the one that Fitz-Gerald delivers here, this is now the most extensive version around.

Fitz-Gerald transcribed much of the `Love And Hate’ score by ear from the film’s soundtrack. (www.markfitzgerald.co.uk)

Love and Hate is a film score from 1935, where the Shostakovich style has already undergone a transition to a more serious, less wise-cracking, less abrasive symphonic manner even before he was slapped down by the Stalin regime over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The cues are short, the score reaches a tragic climax during the Funeral scene, and a memorable, thoroughly Russian march tune recurs throughout many of these cues, dominating the score. Apparently a tremendous amount of reconstruction had to be done since the full score and most of the piano sketches were missing; Fitz-Gerald and his team had to take down a good deal of the music by ear from poor-quality film stock. It’s a significant find mainly for its place in the chronology of Shostakovich’s career, and it’s good that we can hear it at last.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.