Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 19


The premiere of Odna and Shamanism

Alone at the Sorbone

19_OdnaThe premiere of Odna and Shamanism

On the evening 12th April 2003 the world premiere of a full picture-with-sound version of Odna took place at Theatre on the Parade in picturesque Den Bosch (Netherlands). Kozintsev and Trauberg’s unique film has been restored and rereleased with Shostakovich’s music performed live. This is largely thanks to the work undertaken between Mark Fitz-Gerald, Theodore van Houten, Nic Raine and Krzysztof Meyer, all of whom played some part in the restoration of the 1930 score (op. 26) by Shostakovich.

The performers were the soloists, choir and orchestra of the Amsterdam’s Conservatoire.

The Parade lies in the heart of town close to the beautiful church St Jan with its famous organ. For the occasion inside the old Theatre hung a well-known picture of Odna also used as a frontispiece of the printed programme. It’s the famous image of the skin of a horse drying in the sun while Yelena Kusmina arrives on a horse and cart in a primitive settlement in the Altai.

From the moment I saw this fascinating image I was intrigued. However let me first give a review of the evening before I continue with Shamanism in Odna.

The History
Acouple of years ago Mark van Houten had the ambitious idea to restore and release Odna with live music. Together with Donald Bleijleve, business coordinator of the Film in Concert organisation, they set up a plan to achieve this goal – but without fully realizing the difficulties of pulling together a large orchestra and a group of well trained singers. It became quickly evident that to hire a well-known orchestra would have exceeded the budget. The obvious choice – the students of the Rotterdam Conservatory, who did an excellent job with New Babylon in 2001 did not, however, want to get involved with something totally new so shortly after the last project. And so van Houten turned to the students of the Conservatory of Amsterdam. Luckily the project fitted the study plan the young musicians were due to be undertake. All that was needed in order for them to finally start the project was permission from Irina Shostakovich and help from the Shostakovich Centre’s Director Emmanuel Utwiller.

The Performance
The orchestra, vocal soloists and conductor did a very fine job. The throat singer Mark van Tongeren was clearly audible just like the theremin, whose tonalities fitted perfectly the winds howling during a blizzard, which we see in the film.

Mark Fitz-Gerald explained how difficult it had been to reconstruct the music from the act before the missing fragment, track 33. The music moves forwards very quickly and it took him about two months until he was finished. He described his way of working, like putting aside the score over and over again and starting over with a clean sheet and an empty mind – before he was satisfied with the results.

As to the solution to the problem of the of missing second last act: the explanatory text (projected on screen) combined with the original music, up until the last act worked very well. Indeed, I felt the orchestra played this section in highly spiritual manner.

In Odna there are some interesting moments connected with what is known as Shamanism. Some remarks about this subject.

The people of the Altai in those days were nomads and moved around the tundra with huge wigwams. Their principal means of survival was through sheep-breeding and horses. They caught wild horses which were vital assets for cattle driving. Like the folk of Tuva these peoples’ religion was Shamanism, a religion later repressed by Soviet Communism post-1930. Nowadays the religion has returned.

In the film we see a fragment or two of a Shaman dancing to the beat of a tambourine. This fragment appears to have been shot in studios in Kiev one year before the film was made, so Theodore van Houten told us. Shostakovich was present at those recordings. In the final analysis, although the sequence appears slightly odd to the eye (as the picture quality differs so much with the rest of the film), those moments are of great importance.

We look at a Shaman[1], who enters a trance with the beat of the tambourine. From the Shaman’s clothes along with the appearance of the stick he uses, it seems to me possible that the Shaman’s spirit is connected with a horse. The symbol of a horse in Shamanism has also the double meaning of Death.

One side of the tambourine is covered with leather. Most likely the skin of the tambourine is made of a horse skin. Since the skin of the horse contains the soul of the horse, the shaman’s means of transport to the spiritual world will be by horse, or as a horse! Added to which, in the film one can hear on two separate occasions the sound of hoofs.

Among the references to Shamanism there are three other significant moments in Kozintsev and Trauberg’s film. The moment Kusmina arrives from the big city to the primitive settlement – we see the horse is hanging in the sky; another where Yelena pretends she’s giving lessons to the kids and in the meanwhile in the background we hear the soloist’s voice transform itself (by means of throatsinging) into a horn sound with orchestra. Finally the absolutely magnificent final conclusion were an aeroplane No. 147 (Shostakovich last final opus number!) with the rescued Yelena flies high into the sky with the dried horse in the foreground and the music to the Limpid Stream op. 39 (1935) in the background.

The contrast between religion and communism, nature and industrialization is quite evident in the film and perhaps Shamanism is even one of the main reasons that this film was banned under Stalin

I asked writer Andrei Znamenskii[2] if he knew of a connection between Shostakovich, Kozintsev & Trauberg, Odna and Tan Bogoraz. In a written reply he said:

Andrei Znamenskii: “I am very familiar with the Kozintsev/Trauberg film Odna. In it, the role of shaman in the movie is played by a native Altaian, Kondratii Tanashev. Tanashev was introduced to Kozintsev by ethnomusicologist and famous scholar of Siberian Shamanism, Andrei Anokhin (1869-1931) who, in addition to books and articles on Shamanism, also composed a romantic opera Erlik (a deity in Altaian Shamanism). However, even though Anokhin knew Bogoraz well as they worked in the same field, any possible connection between Kozintsev & Trauberg and Bogoraz would have been indirect”.

Znamenskii did not see obvious connection between Shostakovich and Bogoraz, although he could not rule out the possibility that they knew each other.

Henny van der Groep

Alone at the Sorbone

When Kozintsev and Trauberg planned Alone, their followup to New Babylon, Soviet film sound technology was still in its infancy, so it was shot as a silent film to be accompanied by live musicians in the usual way. However, technology advanced and Ekk’s The Road to Life, the first Soviet sound feature, was successful, so Alone was rethought as a sound film. With music by Shostakovich, it proved good enough for Stalin to commit extra funds to improving film sound[3]. But the wartime bombing of Lenfilm destroyed prints, stills, designs and other materials, leaving it more cited than seen until the mid 1960s, when it was restored from prints from outside the USSR. However, one reel remains stubbornly lost, though there is always the hope that it may turn up in some film archive[4].

But the soundtrack, a clever melange of music, speech and sound effects, was compromised by poor sound. The restoration certainly improved matters but many of the
music’s subtleties were only revealed by recordings, though all have flaws.  Rozhdestvenky’s suite, given a spirited performance by the arranger, is a mere 12 minutes long, while Chailly and Sinaisky present around twenty minutes each, but Jurowski and Mnatsakanov’s recordings of the old Collected Works, volume 41 are also imperfect[5]. This omits some pieces altogether but the others were re-edited during postproduction with repeats being introduced and removed, and the pieces reordered. Mnatsakanov also dispenses with the tenor, leaving Jurowski the current recording choice.

Preparing the score for publication in the new Collected Works, also made it possible to perform it live to the film. As detailed above, the premiere took place in April in Den Bosch with further performances in Utrecht and Paris, this last the basis of this review. The undertaking presented many problems. CW41 had to be re-edited and the missing items painstakingly transcribed (a task made harder by the poor soundtrack). Decisions had to be made on how to deal with the speech and sound effects, and the missing reel. Only then are the musicians able to grapple with the actual performance.

The score was edited and transcribed by Shostakovich’s friend, composer Krzysztof Meyer, soundtrack conductor and orchestrator Nic Raine and Alone’s conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald[6]. The newly edited and truly complete Alone will be published as volume 106 of the new Collected Works.

Generally the speech and sound effects are taken from the soundtrack, with mixed results. It is a good idea that a couple of odd words are taken by choir members, raising the possibility of extending this, though the street tannoys’ messages would need to retain their disembodied quality. The barrel organ also needs to be treated carefully – the directors may have wanted this to sound noticeably different as they recorded one specially. Some of the effects (birdsong, for instance) could be – and in these performances were – taken by the orchestra, and a few others could have been added.

The biggest failure in this department was when Kuzmina enters an office and is met by a gale of typewriter noise, which sounded simply like astonishingly bad sibilance, perhaps a weird result of the acoustics of the Grand Théâtre de la Sorbonne. It would be impossible to gather enough typewriters to do this live, but perhaps a better recording could be substituted, easing the transition between the soundtrack and the live performers.

The missing reel, though short, presents real problems. As nothing survives the two possible solutions are to omit both the images and the music from the performance or to insert some explanatory titles. This is the chosen route and there is a brief indication of what happens, in English and French.

Unfortunately the lack of materials makes it impossible to explain the action as the music progresses, so only the most general scene-setting is possible. While this obviously lessens the effect as we do not see the storm that incited Shostakovich to use the theremin, it is still a welcome opportunity to hear the music.

The performers were soloists, choir and orchestra from the Amsterdam Conservatory. Using students means it is possible to devote more time to rehearsals, important in a score as tricky as this, even ignoring the problems of synchronisation. Apart from a
slightly sticky moment in the woodwind early on, the evening was a triumph, vindicating the new presentation.

Still, conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald wants to improve things more, especially the balance
between the music and the sound effects and is looking forward to more performances and further refinements, and hopefully these should be an important part of the events of 2006.

John Riley

[1] An important figure in studies of Siberian Shamanism was Tan Bogoraz (1865-
1936: in fact the pseudonym of Waldemar Bogoras and of Natan Mendelevich
Bogoraz – N. A.Tan). He was sent to Siberia under the Tsars, where he wrote a
number revolutionary poems. One of them is used in Shostakovich‘s Opus 88,
number 10. Bogoraz was a famous anthropologist, ethnologist, linguist, and was also
a well-known novelist in the Soviet Union and America.
[2] Andrei Znamenskii – author of Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters
with Russian Orthodox Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820-1917 (Westport, Connecticut:
Greenwood Press, 1999) and editor/translator of Through Orthodox Eyes:
Russian Missionary Narratives of Travels to the Dena’ina and Ahtna, 1850s-1930s
(Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003). He is currently at the Library of
Congress working on a research fellowship.
[3] B. Shumiatskii, Kinematografia millionov. Moscow, 1935, p.117.
[4] There also seem to be at least one minor variant in existing prints. A shot of
Kuzmina’s window blowing open in the morning, appears in some, but not the one
used for these performances
[5] The latest incarnation of Rozhdestvensky’s suite was on BMG 74321 59058 2.
It has been deleted along with Mnatsakanov (Russian Disc RD CD 10 007). Still
in the catalogue are Jurowski (Capriccio 10 562), Chailly (460 792-2) and Sinaisky
(CHAN 10023).
[6] See the interview and review of his performances of New Babylon in DSCH 16 (January 2002), pp. 50-1.