DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Orango – Prologue; Symphony No. 4 in C minor – Los Angeles Philharmonic/Los Angeles Master Chorale/soloists/Esa-Pekka Salonen – DGG B0016868-02, 96:30 (2 CDs) *****:
Much has been written about the incredible talents of Shostakovich as well as what his life was like in Stalinist Russia. Shostakovich had a strange, troubled and tenuous relationship with the government that he distrusted, feared and despised but which – occasionally – paid him well and expected some exaggerated gratitude.
Shostakovich knew he had much to offer musically as well as philosophically and gave vent to his true feelings most often in his operas. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk gave a troubled and sarcastic view of the role of women in revolutionary-era Russia while The Nose openly made fun of a post-revolution government official whose intrusiveness and pomposity overcomes his very identity and humanity.
Orango, commissioned in 1932 by the Bolshoi Theatre, and left unfinished, may be his most bitter and sarcastic condemnation of the government influenced press and the climate of his country in general. The plot is a strange one in which television announcers try to ignore political uprisings and the like while a new media voice, “Orango”, emerges to rally the people against Communism. Orango is also a bizarre human-ape hybrid whose character is based on the even more bizarre and morally controversial experiments of an actual Soviet geneticist, Ilya Ivanov, who actually tried to cross-breed humans and apes. Orango, as the journalist “Jean Or”, descends into corruption, bribery, sleazy journalism and so forth until his animal nature takes over and he is caged and displayed.
Shostakovich’s opera commission, based on a libretto of his device, in turn based on the joint writings of Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov (who ended up shot!), was intended as a paean to the 15th anniversary of the Revolution and was never completed. (Apparently the bitter and sarcastic nature of the story was not quite what the proletariat had in mind; with its similarities to Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous “Heart of a Dog”.) Amazingly, this work was found in a box by scholar Olga Digonskaya who worked with English composer Gerard McBurney to fill in the blanks and bring the score to life.
This recording was made live at Walt Disney Concert hall in a semi-staged version of the Prologue by the extremely talented and ideally- suited Peter Sellars in December, 2011. The score has been described as “madcap pessimism” (Mark Swed, LA Times) and is, indeed, one of Shostakovich’s wildest mélanges of folk tunes, marches, terrifying outbursts and an orchestration that includes car horns and whistles among other things. At one point a French critic (in the libretto) jumps onto the podium to try to stop the conductor! It is – in all aspects – the composer’s audacious and largely successful depiction of a world gone mad.
The Symphony No. 4 is not only the other monumental pairing on this disc but it was the second half of this live concert. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen chose the bleak and terrifying Fourth as almost the logical extension of the mood established in Orango.
The Symphony No. 4 is decidedly one of Shostakovich’s best and most bizarre. It represents the chaos and paranoia that the composer must have felt at the time and reflected the dangerously unpredictable nature of his country and its leadership. The opening Allegretto and Presto is wild and manic. The central Moderato con Moto is strangely benign and nearly out of place while the final Largo and Allegro is a wholly sardonic mash of the sweetly simple and the most tragically piercing series of outbursts. It is truly Shostakovich practically screaming his frustration and “wakeup” to his countrymen and offers such an unbelievable contrast to the subsequent Fifth!
As for this recording and the forces of the LA Philharmonic, the LA Master Chorale and maestro Salonen, I think this is Grammy award stuff! The Los Angeles Philharmonic emerged under Salonen as, arguably, the best orchestra in the country and I personally think that, during his tenure, they were an amazing and formidable ensemble. The recording is amazing. The engineers of DGG in the Walt Disney Concert Hall with these performing forces have much to work with. All the vocalists in Orango and every single instrumentalist in both pieces are splendid.
This is an essential recording for admirers of Shostakovich as well as for fans of Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Strongly recommended!
The first of the Rubenstein series, by Shelest and Järvi