"There’s a growing list of Shostakovich Fourths in the catalogue, several of which I’ve reviewed on this site. What makes this DG double stand out is the prologue to
Orango, a satirical opera commissioned – somewhat hastily – by Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre to mark the 15
th anniversary of the October Revolution. Originally the plan was for a new opera,
The Solution, to a libretto by the poet Demyan Bedny. That never materialised, so Count Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov were drafted in to help. It was they who suggested
Orango, for which Shostakovich produced a prologue; but then that project was shelved as well.
In 2004 this piano score was discovered among theRead more composer’s papers, and two years later his widow, Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, invited Gerard McBurney to produce a performing version of this 30-minute piece. It was an inspired choice, given the latter’s important work in reconstructing
Hypothetically Murdered (1992). In
Orango the aim was to flesh out the music using the bits Shostakovich had already plundered from his 1931 ballet
The Bolt and orchestrate the rest as idiomatically as possible. The prologue was premiered five years later, and thank goodness someone at DG had the presence of mind to record it.
Orango is a work steeped in the rich tradition of Russian satire, a genre that spawned some of Shostakovich’s most outrageous creations, from
The Nose (1928) to
Moscow Cheryomushki (1958). Conveniently it’s a celebratory piece, set on the steps of the capital’s grandiose but never-to-be-built Palace of the Soviets; it also ridicules the sycophantic press and prevailing public attitudes, which may explain – in part at least – why the opera was never completed. As for the central character, the humanoid ape Orango, this was a thinly disguised reference to the work of Soviet Professor Ilya Ivanov, a misguided scientist who attempted to cross-breed apes and humans.
So much for the gist and genesis of this bizarre opera, but does the prologue work as a stand-alone piece? Emphatically, yes. The overture – with its skittish side drums and thwacking pratfalls – will be familiar from
The Bolt, whose anti-Soviet sentiments are carried over into the opening number, ‘Work is a curse/The unhappy destiny of a slave’. It’s gloriously sung by the revellers and The Voice from the Crowd, Jordan Bisch. This is vintage Shostakovich, big, bold and biting, the fine soloists and chorus believably balanced; even more impressive is the recording, which is astonishing in its reach and impact. The sound is very refined too – not a hint of Soviet-era rudery or roughness – and yet it captures the work’s dystopian flavour to perfection.
The bass-baritone Ryan McKinny makes a splendidly sardonic Master of Ceremonies – in this context more of a carnival barker – who announces Orango and sings lustily of the country’s economic miracles. The pomp-pricking accompaniment tells its own story though, Salonen drawing strong, characterful playing from his orchestra. And that’s another surprise, for this conductor has always struck me as somewhat aloof and cerebral, and not one to slum it; but slum it he does,
The Bolt-borrowed dance of Nastya Terpsikhorova – ‘the embodiment of music’ – played with a blend of mock seriousness and savage delight.
It’s great fun, and to hear it played and recorded this well adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of the score. Indeed, it was all I could do to stop myself leaping up and shouting ‘Bravo’ after Nastya’s roof-raising number. The Foreigners, who act as a Greek chorus, condemn the show as drivel, to which Shostakovich replies with music of appropriate zest and bombast. The Zoologist – the man of science, much revered by the Soviets – introduces Orango as the brute who is able to yawn and use a knife and fork. It’s dark, seditious stuff, and one can imagine how it appealed to the composer’s sense of mischief and subversive wit.
McBurney’s orchestration sounds remarkably authentic, and despite a wide array of instruments – including military and slide whistles, sleigh bells, castanets, motor horn and flexatone – he deploys them all with commendable restraint. Indeed, the satire seems all the more telling when – as here – it’s so artfully done. As for Orango, he’s part of a long literary line that stretches from Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein to Gaston Leroux’s tortured
Fantôme and beyond; he has a rudimentary aesthetic sense – he can play a well-known nursery rhyme – and he’s powerfully attracted to one of the foreigners, the ‘Rrrrrrrred-headed temptress’ Susanna. The fricative frolics that follow are an absolute delight; as for Eugene Brancoveanu and Yulia Van Doren, they’re funny without resorting to grotesquerie.
McBurney and Salonen exercise good judgment with this intriguing score, even if the outlandish plot becomes more fragmented and improbable by the minute. Still, there’s enough entertainment value and interest in these characters to keep one listening to the end. That’s helped by singers – and a chorus – who clearly relish their roles and sing with verve and accuracy. And what a thrilling finale, the audience responding enthusiastically to a job well done. It’s tempting to speculate what the completed work might have been like, but at least we have a fine realisation of the prologue that’s not likely to be topped any time soon. That goes for the recording too; it’s one of the best DG offerings I’ve heard in ages."
Orango: Prologueby Dmitri Shostakovich Conductor:
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony no 4 in C minor, Op. 43by Dmitri Shostakovich Conductor:
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1935-1936; USSR
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Wow what fun!November 2, 2012By R. Willard (W. Simsbury, CT)See All My Reviews"Orange is one of those recordings where you mark the places on the recording you want your friends to hear. There is so much fun with the percussion folks clearly having a great time, though it is a workout. Loved it the first time, loved it the second time.... The Symphony continues in this same vein. It keeps you on your toes and certainly is not for the faint hearted who want elevator music. And as we have come to expect Salonen shows complete control of the orchestra in a composition that could get out of hand with the vast orchestra involved. Get the disc, enjoy it, but don't attempt to nap through it."Report Abuse