Usually listed as The Age of Gold, this ballet is the source from which the famous wrong-note Polka is derived. The outline for the scenario came from a filmmaker and the choreographers incorporated acrobatics into the dance repertory, which fit in perfectly with the sort of Soviet version of Milhaud’s “Nothing-Doing Bar” ballet. There are all sorts of stereotypical characters and odd events presented in music hall fashion with appropriate music. It’s about a visit by a Soviet football team to an unnamed Western city. The general idea is to contrast wholesome Russian athletes and the decadent capitalists.
The big challenge for Shostakovich was to properly communicate the musical parodies of Western decadence when he clearly enjoyed his efforts at imitating exactly that. He sometimes used decadent dance forms such as the tango, and inserted jazzy elements in many of his works. In fact in 1928, on a bet with conductor Nikolai Malko, he orchestrated Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two, and the swinging little piece became very popular, to his embarrassment. It’s heard here as the opening Entr’acte for Act 3.
A run-down of some of the sections of the ballet will give a feeling for the score: Dance of the Maitre d’Hotel and the Aristocrats, Dance of the Tennis Players, Dance of the Golden Youths, Dance of the Diva, Conversation Between the VIP and…, Football, Tango, Eccentric Dance, Exit of the Soviet. Much of the music is fairly dissonant and spikey, though leavened with the composer’s many whistable “light music” melodies and rhythms. I suppose the officially-approved Soviet propaganda theme of the ballet insulated it from being accused of decadent formalism.
This complete ballet was not even available on recordings until 1994, when Chandos released it conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. That version has a bit more snap and verve to my ears in both performance and sonics. However, the Naxos offers a more compact package with about ten minutes more music. Tempi are similar so perhaps the earlier set had some cuts. Then of course, as always with Naxos, there is the price advantage.
– John Sunier