SHOSTAKOVICH: Hypothetically Murdered – Orchestral Suite Op. 31a (1931) – Dimitri Kharitonov, bass/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder – Signum Records/Top Music HQCD ™-HQCD8008.4, 39:00 [www.topmusic.com] ****:
This most unusual release caught my eye in the listing of discs offered by the Hong Kong audiophile label Top Music, since it is completely different from the much more commercial and Asian-oriented material on that label. It seems to be the first of their HQCD discs which is playable on any standard CD player, probably downconverted from a higher sampling rate and using more premium media than standard CDs, similar to F.I.M.’s K2HD discs. The only information on the process included is entirely in Japanese so I can’t relay details on it. The disc is also a promotional one for the British audio manufacturer Rega, with their name on the CD, their CD player pictured on the cover, and color illustrations in the note booklet of some of their components.
This is the world premiere recording of one of Shostakovich’s early scores that had been completely forgotten in Soviet archives. Gerard McBurney reconstructed this orchestral suite from confusing piano scores and sketches that he discovered. The Soviet Union was going thru much upheaval at the time and the young composer hooked up with a celebrity vaudeville and jazz performer named Leonid Utiosov, who was big in light entertainment in the USSR for four decades. Together they cooked up what was described as “a Light-Music Circus Entertainment in 3 Acts.” Shostakovich wrote the music for the pit orchestra and Utiosov led his “Tea-Jazz” ensemble onstage, whose performers also took part in the action. There are big dance numbers, vocal and choral pieces and music for scene changes. The plot mixed comedy and slapstick with serious political issues – some of it a very Russian style of dark satire. The plot revolves around a civil-defense practice, with one of the characters scheduled to play a hypothetical casualty of war, but this character – played by Utiosov – refuses that role. The big production involved a leading choreographer, two popular actors, and even a performing German shepherd named Alpha (who critics complained barked all the way thru the premiere). Following this foray into lighter music, Shostakovich went on to compose a long series of scores for Soviet films.
There are 21 short cues for scenes in four acts. They mostly sound similar to the Shostakovich light music we are more familiar with – his waltzes, tangos, galops, and so forth, which are available on several recordings. Most of these cues don’t exhibit much of a jazz quality, but I suppose that was handled by the onstage band. The Birmingham Symphony plays the music with great skill – this doesn’t sound like a rushed recording session with little rehearsal. The sonic quality is first rate, with a great transparency and wide dynamic range – definitely superior to the average CD.
– John Sunier