A Shostakovich Novelty and an Unsettling Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich: Soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.5.2013. (JPr)

ShostakovichOrango Prologue orch. Gerard McBurney (UK première)
(semi-staged performance in Russian with English surtitles)
Irina Brown director
Louis Price set designer, video designer
Kevin Treacy lighting designer

Cast included:
Ryan McKinny – The Entertainer
Allan Clayton – Zoologist
Richard Angas – Orango
Elisabeth Meister – Susanna
Peter Hoare – Paul Mâche
Ashley Riches – Voice from the crowd
Philharmonia Voices

ShostakovichSymphony No.4 in C minor

A couple of years after its world première, what remains of Shostakovich’s 1932 satiric opera, Orango, (in a performing version by Gerard McBurney) was presented for the first time in the UK by the Philharmonia Orchestra and an enthusiastic group of soloists under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen who also conducted its first outing in 2011 in Los Angeles.

The work had been intended as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution but was quickly abandoned – and forgotten, apparently – by Shostakovich after he had prepared the piano score of a forty-minute prologue. It was rediscovered when musicologist, Olga Digonskaya, found this sketch in the archive of the Glinka Museum in 2004. In his extensive programme note Gerard McBurney explains how ‘The task of orchestration was made considerably easier because, for the opening of the Prologue, Shostakovich had recycled his overture to The Bolt, and for the Red Army dance in the middle he had used two fragments from the end of the same ballet. These wholesale borrowings gave clear indication as to the style the composer had in mind for the whole opera. For the rest, my method was to ransack Shostakovich’s other pieces from the same period for hints and suggestions.’

Resonances of Orango for our own time are inescapable. The libretto by the well-known Russian science-fiction and historical writer Alexey Tolstoy and his assistant Alexander Starchakov begins with unethical science. A French biologist inseminates a female ape with his own sperm. Her offspring, a hybrid, half-ape, half-man, Orango, grows up to fight in World War I, becomes a journalist, then an anti-Communist newspaper mogul, before being sold to a circus as curiosity from the pre-revolutionary capitalist past. It was 1932 when Orango was composed, this was one year after the cinema release of King Kong and 81 years before US scientists announced they have cloned stem cells from human embryos leading to speculation that it might be possible to clone entire human beings: this was in the news on the day of this concert.

It is not entirely clear why Shostakovich did not write any more than this early version of the prologue, but it is suspected that the authorities realised that Orango was not the celebratory work they were hoping for. The composer went on to complete the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that was premièred in 1934 and was working, between September 1935 and May 1936, on his Fourth Symphony that we would hear after the interval. During this time the newspaper Pravda published the infamous editorial ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, a Josef Stalin-inspired denunciation of Shostakovich that was specifically aimed at his recent opera. Despite this and the pervading political atmosphere of the time, the symphony was finished and a first performance was planned. However, fearing for his life the composer changed his mind during rehearsals and withdrew the work: it was not heard publicly until 1961 when played by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

Clearly Shostakovich was already on shaky ground with Stalin and this Orango would not have helped. We are at the huge Palace of Soviets – in reality, like this opera, an unachievable monument to the same 15th anniversary – for typically propaganda-filled entertainment such as workers’ choruses, a catalogue of the triumphs of the USSR (that culminates in the announcement that Moscow is bedbug free!) and colourful dances. There are, amongst others present, sceptical foreigners from the West as special guests – as well as a Greek chorus – the zoologist who created Orango with his daughter and Paul Mâche who wants to make money from telling the story of Orango’s life. Almost ever-present is The Entertainer who parades him as a freak in a cage. This is a world not to be celebrated but despised – is it any wonder the opera was never finished?

In Los Angeles Gerard McBurney’s performing version of Orango had the benefit of a Peter Sellars staging. Presumably it was not possible to recreate this at the Royal Festival Hall and it was given a semi-staging by the British-based – but St Petersburg-born – director, Irina Brown. It utilised the front of the platform and characters also entered through the audience. It was good fun, though a bit like ‘Carry On Up The Soviet Revolution’ at times. The Philharmonia Voices played a full part, waving red flags or ribbons with gusto and with their scores disguised as copies of Pravda. There was some garish lighting by Kevin Treacy and suitable images projected on a screen behind the orchestra, including the proposed Palace of Soviets and many historical scenes from Soviet Russia showing protest, warfare, state-directed celebration and Red Army dancers.

The score – probably more McBurney than Shostakovich – was overall rather frantic with only a few moments of lyrical repose when an image of ballerina ‘Nastya Terpsikhorova’ is shown dancing to an accompaniment that includes a banjo. This is a very sentimental reminiscence, as is the parody of a popular nursery rhyme of the day that we hear. Shostakovich was perhaps hoping his audience would take comfort in the past whilst fearing the future.

The very solid cast of 11 soloists was dominated by the charismatic Ryan McKinny as The Entertainer, Peter Hoare’s venal journalist, and veteran Richard Angas’s pitiable, ponderous Orango (in business suit and with furry arms). Elisabeth Meister added yet another wonderful vignette to her list of recent successes. Though she did not have much to sing what she did was quite compelling. She caterwauled wonderfully in a small role in Covent Garden’s recent The Minotaur. I have no idea who is responsible for her impressive vocal technique but for her over-the-top scream as she fled from the rampaging Orango out of the auditorium she must have studied with Maria Sharapova! Esa-Pekka Salonen led an engrossing – if rather breathless – performance from the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Philharmonia Voices. It was all heavily – perhaps too heavily – miked and the sound was rather cacophonous at times and it was difficult to completely decide whether this was due to McBurney … or the amplification.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is in three movements lasting about 65 minutes; two longer outer ones bracket the much shorter middle one. The opening Allegretto poco moderato – on this my second hearing of this work live -is still the least ‘accessible’, and remains a quixotic fantasia of free musical thinking. It is very martial and rampant especially during the tumultuous fugato that demands the best from the string section and got it here from the Philharmonia. There are hints of the Purgatorio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in the middle movement which also has some coarse Ländler-like material typical of that composer. The shadow of Mahler looms largest over the concluding Largo – Allegro from its opening minutes onwards and it is this movement that makes sitting through the all the rest of it worthwhile. There is a familiar funeral march in the tramp-tramp of the basses; those dance rhythms and the pervading chaos similar to the ending of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. As the efforts of Andrew Smith and Paul Philbert on their Timpani subsided – they did remind me of a famous Morecambe and Wise orchestra sketch – along with the musical maelstrom, there was an ominous lull that ended with Jason Evans’s elegiac trumpet call – another reference to Mahler Seven.

Salonen conducted the piece last night with a clear sense of its overall structure, bringing a brooding and deeply sardonic atmosphere to the work that – in hindsight – seemed lacking in the earlier Orango Prologue. The orchestra again played splendidly for him and among several fine contributions from the woodwinds Principal Oboist, Gordon Hunt was outstanding. At the end Esa-Pekka Salonen lowered his left arm achingly slowly to pre-empt premature applause and when he finally turned round it looked as though he was both pleased though totally drained – this was exactly the same for this listener.

Jim Pritchard

Click here to read a review of Salonen’s live recording of these two Shostakovich works.

For more about the Philharmonia’s forthcoming concerts visit www.philharmonia.co.uk.