ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich
WORKS: New Babylon
PERFORMER: Basel Sinfonietta/Mark Fitz-Gerald
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572824-25
Grotesque faces jostle sharply in close-up, while backgrounds glide by in a deliberate fuzz. Narrative clarity is equally fuzzy, as the struggles of the 1871 Paris Commune come interwoven with scenes of music-hall fun and a Paris department store under siege at the sales. New Babylon the film, shot in 1928 by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, is easy to admire, hard to enjoy. New Babylon the music, written quickly by Shostakovich for the film’s Moscow premiere, sweetens the pill somewhat, though the saccharine purposefully leaves a bitter taste. Curdled can-cans; minced marches; wobbly waltzes; acrid quotes from Offenbach and the French Revolution: Shostakovich presses them together in a collage alternately dizzy and desolate, spiritedly performed by Mark Fitz-Gerald and the Basel Sinfonietta.
Fitz-Gerald uses his own edition of the score, prepared after careful research. The joy of it lies in the light instrumentation for 18 players, mostly one to a part, which adds new clarity to a varied score offering plenty of signposts to the Shostakovich to come. There’s also the novelty of 130 extra bars – four new minutes of bitter music for the film’s original ending, subsequently cut. The peril lies in listening for 91 minutes to a brilliant but elongated opus, never intended for a life away from the images it was designed to complement, cut across, and contradict.