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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Hypothetically Murdered & other works

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 1992
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Produced by Tony Harrison
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 71 minutes 9 seconds

For Shostakovich the six years which span this recording (1931-1937) were a period of almost incredibly change and upheaval. It was at this time that the young man faced his first serious political difficulties which culminated in the terrors of 1936. Signum Records are delighted to welcome the CBSO, under the direction of Mark Elder to revive some of the composer's highly ironic music.


‘Elder and the City of Birmingham play Hypothetically Murdered like it was the background music for a Soviet Cabaret, but with lots more sex and irony … anyone who loves Shostakovich will love Hypothetically Murdered’ (AllMusic, USA)

For Shostakovich the six years from 1931 (when Hypothetically Murdered was composed) to 1937 (the year of the Four Romances) were a period of almost incredible change and upheaval. It was at this lime that the young man faced his first serious political difficulties which culminated in the well-documented terrors of 1936. At the same time, it was precisely in these years that he succeeded in transforming himself musically from the enfant terrible who was responsible for such scandalous experiments as the opera The Nose and the first three symphonies, into the fully-fledged tragedian and orchestral architect who wrote Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the 5th Symphony.

Hypothetically Murdered, for so long lost and forgotten in Soviet archives, occupies a peculiarly interesting place in this story. The show seems to have had its beginnings in a chance meeting in July 1930. The young composer was staying in a hotel in Odessa, where he met the celebrated vaudeville and pioneer jazz-performer, Leonid Utiosov. Utiosov was the biggest single name in Soviet light entertainment from the 1920s right through to the 1960s. He was an astonishing talent: clown, acrobat, stuntman, violinist, guitarist, singer, bandleader and, supremely in Soviet memories, a film-star. He had a strong effect on Shostakovich, who wrote to a friend: 'Utiosov and I have lunch together nearly every day…l'm growing to like him enormously…Today I listened to his Tea-jazz Ensemble. The whole crowd are on tour here in Odessa at the moment, l'm not mad about the Tea-jazz. Certainly they play well: Skomorovsky (the trumpeter) lets out a sort of trill, the percussionist beats out a complicated rhythmic figure, but…(he just flashes past your eyes, the bloody man, like brmm! brmm!…)…but never mind the Tea-jazz, Utiosov is without doubt the best performer in the USSR that l've seen. I am really glad about this new friendship…'

It was hardly surprising that two men so quickly became close. Utiosov was a theatrical and musical star, and Shostakovich himself, since the completion of The Nose in 1928, had been spending most of his working time in the theatre or the cinema. Indeed between the writing of The Nose and finishing Lady Macbeth in 1932, he completed no less than 13 other dramatic works, including 4 films, incidental music to 5 plays, 2 full length ballets, additions to Erwin Dressel's opera Der arme Columbus, and Hypothetically Murdered, which was described on the posters as a light-music circus entertainment in 3 acts.

For his part, Utiosov had recently founded his Tea-jazz Ensemble (Tea-jazz from Teatral'nyi Jazz—Theatrical Jazz); this band although it gave Shostakovich little pleasure, was, from the general public's point of view, a hugely successful and entertaining attempt to combine 'jazz' (actually its repertoire consisted mainly of light-music and novelty numbers) with theatrical effects. The musicians were expected to dance and perform stunts while playing their instruments.

In 1930, Utiosov used his new ensemble to put on a full-length show in this musico-theatrical style, working with the light-music composer, Isaak Dunaevsky, who was music-director of the Leningrad Music Hall. The show was a success, but both men seem to have felt that for their next venture it would be a better idea to involve a more 'serious' composer. Shostakovich was the obvious choice.

Hypothetically Murdered, Shostakovich's Op 31, opened the Music Hall's new season in the autumn of 1931. Among the talents the show brought together were not only Shostakovich, Utiosov and Dunaevsky, but also the well known choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov (for whom Shostakovich wrote his ballets The Bolt and The Limpid Stream) as well as the director Nikolai Petrov, the popular actors Coralli and Claudia Shulzenklo, and one of the great Leningrad stars of the day, the performing dog, Alpha (a German Shepherd, who, to judge by the poster, danced in a tutu). This was a deliberately starry line-up and was, it seems, an attempt on the part of the theatre's management to get the public to take the Music Hall more seriously.

In one sense the ruse worked. The public came to the show and enjoyed it. But the critics, especially the more left-wing critics, were scathing. They objected to the conjunction of slapstick and the presentation of seriously political issues. They also noted that Alpha had barked loudly from beginning to end of the evening. After its initial run, the show was not revived. At some point, probably during the Siege of Leningrad, the full-score, parts and libretto disappeared. All that survive now are some posters and photographs of the show and, in the Shostakovich papers, a folder with around 40 pages of detailed piano sketches, complete with instrumental indications in the margin.

From this we can get some idea of what the show was about. Apparently the Tea-Jazz Ensemble was on stage, taking part in the action and probably playing its own repertoire. Shostakovich's contribution was the music for the pit-orchestra, conducted by Dunaevsky. Most of Shostakovich's surviving sketches are either big dance-numbers or smaller scene-changes and transitions. There are also a handful of vocal and choral pieces and a spectacularly extended melodeclamation for the actor Coralli and orchestra. Coralli half-sang, half-recited this piece (a parody political speech on the subject of industrial sabotage) while sitting on a huge pile of broken-down locomotives; a photograph of this survives.

The story of the show, provided by the comedy-writers Evgeny Ryss and Vsevolod Voevodin, was certainly a ludicrous combination of satire and agitprop. The actions takes place during a Citizen's Defence Corps air-raid practice (like a sort of Soviet Dad's Army). One of the characters, apparently played by Utiosov himself, decides not to participate as he would rather go and see his girlfriend. The Citizen's Defence Corps reckon that he should be one of those playing the part of someone hypothetically murdered by the hypothetical enemy (a hypothetical casualty of war, as it were). But he refuses to lie down and play dead, hypothetically or otherwise, and instead runs off with the Corps in hot pursuit and leaving chaos in his wake.

Apparently the show began with a silent film showing Utiosov being chased through the streets of Leningrad by Alpha (perhaps this was what the orchestra gallop was used to accompany; or perhaps there was music here that is now missing). The film suddenly ended and the real-life Utiosov ran on to the stage pursued by the real-life Alpha, and saved himself by climbing up a ladder in the middle of the stage, while Alpha stood at the bottom and barked. To judge by the titles in Shostakovich's hand, the rest of Act 1 seems to have been set in the countryside outside Leningrad and to have involved extensive military manoeuvres, a scene in a field hospital and even an underwater dance (presumably of russalki or water-nymphs).

Act II was evidently set inside the city and much of the action took place in a restaurant. Photographs show us that there was a chorus of dancing waiters and waitresses, all dressed in white-tie and tails and wearing gas-masks.

The last act seems to have been an atheist cabaret set somewhere in heaven, with dancing angels and saucy cherubim. Most of the surviving choral music in the work came at this point and was for the angels, who kept breaking out into ridiculous chants of "Holy! Holy! Holy!". There was also an appearance by Mephistopheles who sang part of the Song of the Golden Calf from Gounod's Faust (with wrong harmonies) as well as a Bacchanalia for two well-known saints, John of Kronstadt (a late 19th century figure) and Paraskeva Piatnitsa, an early Christian martyr.

The Orchestral Suite Op 31a, given its world premiere recording on this disc, consists of all the complete surviving orchestral numbers from the folder of piano sketches. In reconstructing and reorchestrating them, I was guided by the other theatre music Shostakovich was writing at the time, and by the lists of instruments he scribbled in the margins of his sketches. However in some cases, and this is one of the principal reasons why this piece is so interesting, episodes and even whole movements were reused by the composer in other later works, enabling me to work out more precisely what the composer must have wanted.

The fact that Shostakovich reused so much of the material clearly shows that he himself thought that this music was worth saving. It certainly wasn't just something he knocked off without paying attention. For example, as Mark Elder was the first to spot, the composer actually incorporated the Act 3 Bacchanalia in its entirety into one of his greatest works, Lady Macbeth, where it becomes the Rape of Aksinia in Act 1. So to reconstruct that piece in this version, all I had to do was to reduce the luxurious orchestration of the operatic passage to the smaller forces of Hypothetically Murdered.

Part of Waitresses also appears in Lady Macbeth, in the celebrated love-scene from Act 1, and almost the whole of Waitresses and the Transition to the Kitchen reappear, with slight changes, in the unfinished comic opera The Big Lightning. The Archangel Gabriel's number is famously quoted in the First Piano Concerto; in this original version, however, the tune lies too low for the trumpet and I have given it to the saxophone. The beginning and end of March from Act 1 were reused as the March of Fortinbras in a production of Hamlet that was the next thing that Shostakovich worked on after Hypothetically Murdered. I only needed to find new orchestral garb for a few bars in the middle.

For the rest I had to rely on my intuition. I hope that I have caught the spirit, if not the letter of Shostakovich's intentions.

Nearly six years after Hypothetically Murdered, in the New Year of 1937, Shostakovich finished his Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin Op 46. From the very first notes it must be clear that this is music from another world, by a man whose musical language and whose message have profoundly changed. Gone is the wild satire and outrageous sense of humour, and gone is the enthusiastic energy of youth. These Romances are music of mature seriousness, dark with sorrow and stripped of superficial effect.

The previous year, 1936, had been the grimmest of the composer's life. Although he had physically survived the assaults and threats from high and low, the destruction of his livelihood and his reputation, he was, not surprisingly in a profound state of shock. For the latter part of the year he hardly wrote any music at all. Like so many others in his country, he seems to have been overcome not only by the personal danger in which he stood, but also the realisation of the madness that had possessed the entire society to which he belonged.

He remained virtually silent until, in the last days before the New Year, he suddenly gave voice again, on the pretext of an anniversary, four poems by the greatest and most humane of all Russian writers, Alexander Pushkin. These poems, as a quick reading even of a crude translation will make clear, were evidently chosen to reflect the composer's feelings about his own particular situation, as well as the situation of those around him.

Both stylistically and in their emotional tone of voice, the Romances mark the beginning of a new chapter in the story of this man's music. Within a short time after finishing them, Shostakovich, apparently swept forward on a creative flood even greater than even he had known before, embarked on the early sketches for one of his grandest and most popular works, the Fifth Symphony. And the careful listener to these songs will find that not only do they usher in the more general matter of their style (a new kind of harmony, a new way of making each phrase grow out of the one before) but that the first of them—Rebirth—actually provides a number of motifs and fragments which the composer then went on to quote in the symphony's last movement. Thus through the connection with the music of this little romance, Shostakovich was able to hide the words of Pushkin's passionate poem, a declaration of the power of art to survive barbarism and oppression, beneath the apparently 'purely' musical argument of his symphonic finale.

At some point (we don't know when) Shostakovich made an orchestration of the first three songs of the cycle, using just a string orchestra, one clarinet and a harp. He kept this orchestral version of the work to himself; perhaps he was waiting for the moment to orchestrate the fourth song. A few years ago, when I first came across this unfinished cycle, it seemed to me a dreadful thing that his beautiful music should not be heard and performed. So, changing only the clarinet to the bass clarinet (to cope with the predominately lower registers), I have orchestrated the last song in a manner as close as possible to that of the first three. This present recording is, as far as I know, the world premiere performance of Shostakovich's own orchestration of the first three songs {there is another recording in an orchestration for large forces by Gennady Rozhdestvensky).

The remaining two works on this disc fill in the space between Hypothetically Murdered and the Four Romances. The fascinating and rarely performed Five Fragments, written at a single sitting on July 9th 1935, are one of the last of Shostakovich's experimental works, harking back to the instrumental and tonal peculiarities of his early symphonies and even such strange compositions as the First Piano Trio and the Aphorisms for piano. But they are perhaps even more interesting for the way in which they prepare the ground for the composition of the massive Fourth Symphony (as the Romances prepare the ground for the Fifth). There are all sorts of textures and strange instrumental balances in the symphony which seem to spring directly out of what is suggested but not developed in these Fragments. And the two works even have one or two distinctive motifs in common.

The first Fragment is a pastorale for the wind-section and harp, the second is a march for wind and brass and double-basses, while the third (the longest and most important of the five) is a rapt and timeless slow movement for strings and harp, strongly reminiscent of the Siberian spaces in the last act of Lady Macbeth. The fourth Fragment, within the mysterious frame of two horn-notes, is a bitter little canon for bassoon (in B flat major), clarinet (in B major) and oboe (in C major); this is unexpectedly brought to an end by a wispy snatch of the string music from the previous movement. The fifth and last Fragment is a grotesque, almost Stravinskian, waltz for violin solo; accompanied by a side-drum and solo double-bass; a flute, clarinet and bass clarinet briefly interrupt, but fail to stop the sardonic trio from playing on.

The popular Suite for jazz orchestra No 1 was written early in 1934, a year and a half before the Fragments. This delightful highly ironic music is a continuation of the spirit of laughter and adventure that has earlier led Shostakovich to work with the great Utiosov on Hypothetically Murdered; and indeed it was probably written for one of the other 'jazz' groups that sprang up on the model of Utiosov's Tea-Jazz Ensemble, sometimes including performers, like Skomorovsky, who had played with Utiosov and who then set up on their own.

As with most 'Soviet Jazz' of this period, there's not much jazz here, more a feeling of operetta and cabaret music and also of Jewish songs (which Shostakovich loved). And somehow, as so often with this particular composer's light music, there is always an undertow of depth and darkness, of real sadness and foreboding underlying the sentimentality and parody.

The three short movements seem designed as effective dance-numbers and are also the right length for a 78rpm gramophone record. The lilting Waltz and the extremely cheeky Polka subsequently found their way into orchestral guise in some of Shostakovich's later ballet music. But the finest movement is undoubtedly the alternatively menacing and hilarious Foxtrot, subtitled Blues; it is worth noticing that it is neither a foxtrot nor a blues.

Gerard McBurney © 2004

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