The New Babylon is a little known work by Dmitri Shostakovich. This CD contains the complete music for the experimental silent film of the same name, written and released in 1929. The work comes from the very final days of the Soviet avante-garde`s brief flowering, and it was also one of the first victims of the doctrine of Soviet Realism that was to haunt Shostakovich for the rest of his life. The film's plot centers around events in Paris of 1871: following the chaos of the successful German counterattack and departure in the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was ruled by a revolutionary Communal Council. The Parisian Communards, despite being eventually destroyed by the regular French Army, were seen as the first true "workers' society" and naturally their story appealed to the communist propagandists in Russia. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin allowed and even encouraged radical developments in the arts; and so a group of young idealistic filmmakers calling themselves The Factory of the Eccentric Actor took the tragic tale and turned it into a bizarre grotesquery mocking the forces of capitalism and materialism, with dance hall parodies and mugging in the style of Charlie Chaplin. The title, The New Babylon, refers to a department store/cabaret in Paris where much of the action takes place. I've not seen the film, but the description in the program notes makes the whole thing sound appalling. But then Shostakovich entered the project.
In 1929, Shostakovich was 23 years old and had just finished his absurdist opera The Nose. He had started his career as a pianist in silent film theatres; and so he was the perfect choice for composer of the film score to The New Babylon. The Nose is an eclectic score, combining contemporaneous art music techniques with folk song and cabaret; and in The New Babylon Shostakovich continued this radical approach. He sought not to reflect the action of the film in his music, but the inner story--thoughts and feelings of the characters, reflections on the past, and premonitions of events yet to come. At times the music is in direct contradiction with the images--but this will be lost on listeners to the CD, of course. What remains are two contrasting moods--the first full of zany madcap action as we leer lecherously through the windows of the New Babylon at the deviant, corrupt soul of capitalism; and the second a long, tragic lament for the lost souls of the Paris commune after their overthrow. It's all scored for a small chamber orchestra--Shostakovich originally wrote for 14 musicians, rather impractically, including string quintet and one each of the major wind instruments and a single percussionist; the basel sinfonietta expands the group to 18 players, with three percussionists. They appropriately keep the strings at one on a part--this was composed for a film theatre orchestra and Shostakovich never intended to use an entire symphonic string section. As such, a certain clarity of sound results, although some of the grandeur of Shostakovich's later symphonic writing is missing, but none of the expression and intense emotion.
Sadly, like the The Nose, The New Babylon was an immediate failure. Shostakovich's music was too difficult for the Russian cinema orchestras to play, his musical language too advanced for audiences at that time and place to appreciate; but most importantly the political climate had changed. No longer was the avante-garde encourage; instead, the new doctrine of Soviet Realism would loom menacingly over the arts until the death of Stalin. Rather than simply glorifying the birth of communism, The New Babylon came to be viewed as a covert criticiam of authority. Both The Nose and The New Babylon fell into obscurity, not to be revived for almost 50 years; even then the latter work remained incomplete. Mark Fitz-Gerald and the basel sinfonietta bring us the first recording of the complete score, with the original ending and many restored cuts forced by an early edit of the film. It's a wonderful work with wild, absurd, and sometimes tragic juxtapositions. Particularly moving is the music on the second disc--the sombre original ending and the scene in which a piano player is shot while playing Tchaikovsky were powerful moments, equal to the best Shostakovich. The basel sinfonietta are not, perhaps, the greatest collection of virtuosos to grace a stage--the Naxos marketing strategy is to keep the price point down by using lesser-known artists, and Mark Fitz-Gerald seems to be the conductor based primarily on the extensive musicological research he did into the piece, but nevertheless together they do a very good job in restoring it to life, and certainly it is better than the performances Shostakovich despaired at in Russia. I highly recommend this CD.