Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 47

New Babylon, World Premiere of Shostakovich’s Lost Original Piano Score to the Restored Film

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: A Re-Discovery Moscow, 16-19 February 2017

Still from the film New Babylon

New Babylon (USSR 1929)
Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (directors); Sasha Grynyuk (piano)
95 minutes
An original REALITY production in association with the Barbican LSO St Luke’s, London, 25 March 2017

Director Grigorii Kozintsev recalled how Shostakovich had first performed his New Babylon piano score on an out-of-tune piano before a filthy screen at a preview screening held in a dilapidated basement of the Sovkino studios in Leningrad. Fortunately, conditions at the LSO St Luke’s music centre were more refined: a grand piano beneath a pristine screen at the altar of a converted Anglican church. DSCH Journal’s very own John Leman Riley gave a witty and informative introduction to the screening before Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk took to the stage. The capacity crowd then witnessed the world premiere performance of Shostakovich’s “lost” original piano score synchronised live with the restored and expanded print of New Babylon produced by Marek Pytel and Jane Elliott. Crucially, this recreation took us nearer to the state of the film at the preview screening, before around 25 percent of the footage was removed. (These cuts were made in the run up to the planned premiere on 18 March 1929, due in part to the orders of Sovkino officials in Moscow.)

Although Shostakovich wrote his score for live performance with the film, Pytel’s programme notes state that the directors and Shostakovich always intended New Babylon to be Russia’s first recorded sound film and hoped that their German co-producers (Derussa) would record the score onto phonograph records in Berlin. These plans were thwarted, however, by the film’s disastrous premiere in March 1929 and the bankruptcy of Derussa later that year. Nonetheless, this explains Pytel’s rationale that New Babylon should always be screened at a consistent speed: 24 frames per second (fps). This speed became the standard for sound film after the commercial success of the Vitaphone sound-ondisc system used by Warner Bros, in America between 1926 and 1931. Whether the film was ever screened in Russian theatres at a rate of 24 fps is a moot point.

Earlier incarnations of Pytel’s restored and expanded print have previously been synchronised with live performances of Shostakovich’s orchestral score, using the critical edition published in volume 122 of the New Collected Works (DSCH Publishers, 2004), e.g., Chicago (2007) and Leeds (2009). I attended one of the performances in Leeds, where Pytel’s reconstruction of the original seditious ending (via title cards) was included for the first time (see DSCH 30). Pytel’s print currently has a runtime of 95 minutes, which is nominally similar in duration to the arte Edition DVD of New Babylon released in 2007 (93 minutes). In that DVD release, Frank Strobel also used the critical edition of the orchestral score, but was compelled to make abridgements in order to fit it to the shorter “standard” print available (CD reviewed in DSCH 27). Thanks to Pytel’s faster projection rate of 24 fps (compared to the 20 fps used on the DVD release) and the agile execution of Shostakovich’s piano score by Grynyuk, the New Babylon we saw at LSO St. Luke’s was, like the TARDIS Time and Space machine in the BBC TV series Dr Who, bigger on the inside than its exterior duration implied. Consequently, we were able to experience much more film and music.

The published piano score was sourced from a copy originally purchased in a Moscow second-hand music shop in 1934. Although Pytel describes this score as “lost,” Manashir Yakubov—in his commentary to the critical edition of the orchestral score—mentions the existence of a published piano score in the Russian Institute of Art History, St Petersburg. It is unclear whether these two sources are identical. Pytel’s programme notes also imply that his source reflects the “complete” material which Shostakovich used at the Leningrad preview screening and that it was published without the corresponding changes and excisions that befell the orchestral parts in the few weeks immediately prior to the premiere. If true, the published piano score would have been immediately obsolete because it contained much more music than the approved print required—an ironic forewarning of the problems encountered by several intrepid European conductors since the 1980s when attempting to match the various available manuscript scores to the truncated prints in circulation. Whilst the LSO St. Luke’s performance included music for the re-instated conclusion to the final act, it is unclear whether the published piano score actually contained this coda or if an ending was devised in a similar fashion to that on the Mark Fitz-Gerald recording released in 2011 (Naxos 8.572824-5; reviewed in DSCH 36). I think the latter is more likely.

It was essential to invite a pianist of Grynyuks calibre to perform what is often a complex and challenging score—and one which requires great stamina in order to play for over 90 minutes with only minimal breaks between the eight acts of the film. Grynyuk (b. 1983 in Kiev) studied at the National Music Academy of Ukraine and later at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He is a regular performer in renowned concert halls across the world and has won many prizes, including first prize at the 2012 Grieg International Piano Competition. Shostakovich composed music which he himself—also of concert-pianist standard—would enjoy playing; there is never any sense of him having adjusted his style to cater for those less able. Whilst I missed certain aspects of the orchestrations to which I am accustomed, Grynyuk’s performance brought out many contrasting textures and colours. I particularly liked the lugubrious sections in the third act which accompany scenes of the starving workers during the siege of Paris. Also, many of Shostakovich’s pianistic idioms are that much more obvious in this format: for example, his witty use of motifs from Charles Louis Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises (originally published in 1873) in the accompaniment to the opening of the fourth act; or the diegetic use of La Marseillaise to accompany the bourgeoisie’s rendition of said anthem in the fifth act, which, through counterpoint and subsequent variation is consumed by Offenbach’s famous “Cancan,” quickly exposing their sham patriotism.

Aside from some specific diegetic moments, there are very few “sync points” in Shostakovich’s score which have to be aligned exactly with a particular onscreen action. In general, Shostakovich’s score has a looser connection with the action and is constructed via blocks of material which shift more subtly in line with the film’s evolving montage complexes. Now that the film and score should be more correctly aligned, the ironic commentary produced by this audio-visual synthesis is much more apparent. Another impressive aspect is that—notwithstanding the ludicrously short amount of time he had to compose the music—Shostakovich evidently conceived the piano and orchestral scores as separate musical entities, each designed to exploit the capabilities of their respective mediums. There is no sense of the piano score being a reduction of the orchestral score or the orchestral score being a mere orchestration of material conceived in pianistic terms.

Pytel has been a tireless champion of New Babylon for several decades now and has shown a dogged determination to restore its missing footage, despite the often openly hostile environment of silent-film reconstruction and presentation in which he must operate. As a fitting tribute to his persistence, it would be fantastic if a DVD of his print could be released that allows access to both complete orchestral and piano scores. Oh, and while I’m asking, a published edition of the piano score would be terrific!

Fiona Ford

Poster of the conference

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: A Re-Discovery Moscow, 16-19 February 2017

The rediscovery of composers is nothing new, nor is it uncommon these days: scholars and performers who work on neglected composers are ever-increasing in number. In general, a rediscovered composer is one who was well-known and widely performed during his or her lifetime, but who went into posthumous obscurity. Of course, the agendas of those contributing to the rediscovery are not always selfless, and regardless of the enthusiasm of crusaders, whether or not such composers pass the test of time and emerge from the shadows depends above all on the quality of their music—or at least some of it.

To kick-start the process of rediscovery, a link with some established figure or entity is usually needed. For Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s re-emergence in the West, this figure was Shostakovich. For decades, almost every mention of Weinberg had to include some allusion to Shostakovich. For example: “he was a friend and disciple of Shostakovich with whom he had a long artistic dialogue” (which is how I successfully pitched my MPhil project to the Sorbonne). In Russia, the bridge to established memory was provided by his film music, and in particular his scores for the three Soviet cartoon adaptations of Winnie-the-Pooh: Vinni-Pukh (1969), Winnie-the-Pooh Pays a Visit (Vinni-Pukh idem vgosti, 1971), and Winnie-the-Pooh and a Busy Day (Vinni-Pukh i den’ zabot, 1972).

So it was a breath of fresh air to find that the papers presented at the International Forum in Moscow addressed such a broad range of aspects, including his national identity, his musical output, his biography (which still has a surprising number of elementary gaps), and issues of performance and message in his operas—in particular The Passenger and The Idiot. From 16 to 19 February, Moscow thus became the Mecca for Weinberg-lovers. The Forum was nothing if not ambitious in scale: three opera performances (two different productions of The Passenger and one of The Idiot), three concerts, and roundtables and encounters with the composer’s family and friends complemented the first international conference entirely dedicated to the composer’s life and work—all within the walls of the iconic Bolshoi Theatre, and book-ended by press conferences, more concerts, film projections, exhibitions, and televised discussions.

Behind the Russian “rediscovery,” a less explicit but equally significant phenomenon was taking place: namely, the Polish “reconciliation” with Weinberg, evident in the generous sponsorship of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and in the discussions of his roots and identity as manifested in his continuing engagement with Polish poets and subject-matter. Weinberg was truly revived.

The Forum opened with a roundtable on the current picture of Russian opera, contextualising Weinberg’s operas performed during the festival and debating their contemporary relevance with their respective production teams. Whilst The Passenger met with the unanimous approval of the participants as an opera that deals with universal and timeless themes, The Idiot caused a more mixed reaction, both to its music and to its libretto, which some argued removed all philosophy and religiosity from Dostoyevsky’s text and reduced the intrigue to a love story. The new production of The Idiot that evening was a curious affair: visually it was attractive, full of somewhat Gogolian surprises and more-or-less convincing cinematographic ideas (slow-motion, projections). But having been heavily cut and reshuffled, the opera lost much of its dramaturgy and pacing, to the extent that—despite the overall high quality of the voices and acting—it lacked the strong dramatic narrative and development that were so striking when the opera was performed in its three-and-a-half hour entirety in Mannheim in May 2013.

The second day of the Forum was dedicated to The Passenger, including papers on its first concert/semi-staged performance in Moscow in 2006, on archival evidence regarding its failure to reach the stage during the composer’s lifetime, on its American afterlife, and on its context within present-day trends of memorialisation. Weinberg’s revival is to a great extent thanks to this opera, its subject matter and music, and to its productions, in particular its stage premiere in Bregenz in 2010 (presented at English National Opera the following year). Since then, there have been stagings all over the world, including those seen during the Moscow Forum, by Ekaterinburg Opera and Novaya Opera. The latter was far superior in concept and realisation, as well as in striking a balance between new technology and the evocation of memory, between tragedy and defiance. Compared to this, the Ekaterinburg performance (given on the New Stage of the Bolshoi) lacked finesse, innovation, and excitement. Between the two operas, a concert of Weinberg’s chamber-orchestral music saw the world premiere of an abandoned early version of the Cello Concerto, performed by Pyotr Kondrashin with the Bolshoi Theatre Chamber Orchestra.

Each of the papers presented during the four-day Forum itself testified to the growing enthusiasm for Weinberg. His music certainly has the necessary qualities to be placed in the Pantheon, and yet there are also dangers here, which some of the conference contributions failed to avoid: of putting his life-story—which doubtlessly reflects some of the greatest tragedies of 20th-century history—before his work, and of exploiting his rediscovery for self-serving career purposes. It is for this reason that I have decided to keep this review as name-free as possible. The full programme of the event, with all the names and claims, may be found here:

There is, however, one name that has to feature here: that of Zofia Posmysz, the Auschwitz survivor and author of Pasazerka (1962)—the novel from which The Passenger derives. The most memorable moment of the entire festival was undoubtedly her appearance on stage after the Novaya Opera production, her shaking hands trying to hold the microphone still, and her frail voice thanking the standing audience. At this moment, she seemed to embody the core of what Weinberg’s music is about: humanity and humility.

Michelle Assay