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Shostakovich: The Golden Age / Serebrier, Et Al

Release Date: 11/21/2006 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8570217   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor:  José Serebrier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 24 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This has been something of a “Golden Age” for The Golden Age, with a gala, fully-staged new production at the Mariinsky Ballet, which was repeated a fortnight later in London. The Mariinsky was where the ballet was first produced, and where it has been revived in previous years, so it can claim a certain pedigree. However, if the St Petersburg was played as poorly as it was in London (see review) I doubt anyone would be enthused to listen to it as music.

This new recording, on the other hand, conducted by José Serebrier, makes a wonderful case for The Golden Age as stand-alone music, for its own sake. Serebrier gets straight into the exuberant spirit of
Read more the music, inspiring the RSNO so much so that they produce an incandescent performance which eclipses the Mariinsky, at least as heard at their London performance. Indeed, it’s executed with such panache that it even challenges the far more sophisticated LSO (with no less than Gergiev, at the 2006 Proms) and the Hallé (with Elder at Aldeburgh 2006). Music written for ballet is by nature episodic because it must allow for set-pieces for dance. It therefore needs an underlying thrust to convince as a musical whole, particularly if it is ever heard purely as music, as is the case with this recording.

Shostakovich had recently returned from a first visit abroad. He was fascinated by jazz, modern dance, agitprop cabaret, indeed the whole creative, chaotic buzz of 1920s Germany. Shostakovich could disguise his discoveries by working them into the plot of the ballet, pretending to be mocking them. That is perhaps why the music still rings true with a sense of enthusiastic commitment. A rapid succession of tableaux unfolds – a waltz, a polka, a tango, jerky, angular rhythms that evoke the spirit of social subversion that the “jazz age” represented, even in the decadent west. Shostakovich employs what were in 1920s Russia, daring, “modern” instruments, like the xylophone, woodblocks, and something known as a “flexitone”. He’s able to incorporate witty snatches of foxtrot and Charleston, and can’t resist a wicked variation on “Tea for Two” complete with saxophone.

This recording comes extremely well documented in that the booklet describes the ballet scene by scene, so you can follow the action while listening and use your own imagination to create visual images. It’s a rewarding exercise – try it ! On the other hand, you can also listen simply as music because it’s so expressive. Serebrier wisely realizes that, without the constraints of having to be in synch with dancers, the music is “freed” so to speak to take on a life of its own. Thus he uses fast tempi, which propel the music on at a heady pace. It’s exciting, because it challenges the orchestra, and they respond with enthusiasm. Dancers might have a problem keeping up, but Serebrier knows the orchestra can do so, and will. They respond with alacrity, as if they were enjoying themselves hugely.

The heady atmosphere and fast pace might conceivably unravel after two and a half hours of playing, but in Serebrier’s hands, the orchestral textures are never compromised. Everything is kept in sharp focus, clearly delineated and lucid. Even in a studio recording it’s not that easy to keep up such intensity, but Serebrier and his players don’t show any sign of flagging. Tiny details like the piccolo symbolizing the football coach’s whistle, remain clear above the tumult. There’s a real whistle, too, in the actual football match scene. Every note of the xylophone rings pure and clear. There’s so much in this music that Serebrier must have had to be very quick and minimal with his signals. Yet the orchestra sounds as if they were bristling with anticipation, executing each entry with extreme precision. There’s no margin for error at these tempi. Leopold Stokowski, Serebrier’s mentor, called the young conductor “the greatest master of orchestral balance”. This performance shows why.

Similar clarity illuminates the slower sections. The Entr’acte Tea for two is quite magical. In the Music Hall scenes, the transitions between different sections are deftly handed, changes of direction turning on a pivot with the grace of a prima ballerina twirling en pointe. Serebrier stretches the dissonances convincingly – just distorted enough to remind us of the undercurrent of serious thought that runs beneath the exuberance. This Can Can isn’t really as carefree as may seem. In the ballet, the final scene depicts the triumph of the Soviet system over its class enemies. Ostensibly the music celebrates too. But Serebrier notes the shrill wail of the flute that ends the swaggering march. It heralds a surprisingly disturbing interpretation of the sections that follow. Trumpets and trombones here subvert the ostensible imagery, and the crackling staccato tension that infuses the penultimate piece is perhaps closer to Shostakovich’s real feelings than the rictus grin he was forced to present to the official world. Serebrier has thought through his interpretation carefully and sensitively. He’s not restrained by the dangers the composer faced, so he can give voice to the darker, more despairing subtext. This Final Dance of Solidarity is far more equivocal and more questioning than would have been possible in Soviet times. Quite frankly I got infinitely more from this recording than from hearing it with ballet, or other performances. Serebrier makes a powerful case for The Golden Age as serious music on its own terms.

This is a breathtaking recording in many ways. It’s also complete and uncut and the notes are good. Don’t hesitate – this is one that needs to be listened to, even in this crowded year of Shostakovich revelations.

-- Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb International

This recording is billed as the first totally, absolutely complete release of The Golden Age, Shostakovich's best ballet, in that you get all of the repeats, some of which are omitted in the only competing, more or less complete version on Chandos (with Rozhdestvensky). Having all of the repeats isn't necessarily a good thing, but with Serebrier and his Scottish players we are in good hands. Rozhdestvensky's recording also is very good, but his Swedish orchestra isn't any better than the Royal Scottish National--and it also suffers from some minor moments of scruffy rhythm in the strings. More to the point, the Russian conductor's reading isn't entirely free of the heaviness that often characterizes his conducting.

You can hear this quite clearly in comparing the two interpretations of the splendid Can-can in Act 3, one of the largest and most powerful extended numbers in the ballet. Serebrier actually is the slower of the two, by a few unimportant seconds, but his rhythms cut through more crisply, and the orchestra's brighter-toned brass and more vivid percussion make the music sparkle as it should--and terrify when it must (as at the end of this very piece). Otherwise there's little to choose between the two, but much else to enjoy here, including that splendidly romantic Dance of the Diva (a big Adagio) as well as all of the other numbers familiar from the popular suite extracted by the composer at the time of the original production. Terrific sound and a very reasonable price make this the clear version of choice.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Age of Gold, Op. 22 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor:  José Serebrier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927-1930; USSR 
Venue:  Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland 
Length: 143 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Notes: Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland (05/23/2006 - 05/26/2006) 

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