It is not only rare music that has been sought out for the Shostakovich centenary. Filmgoers are also benefiting from the occasional screening – at least, they are if they have a fondness for Soviet propaganda from the 1920s, black-and-white films in more ways than one.
Earlier in the year we had Odna, an uplifting tale of Soviet realism: the story of a young female teacher sent to Siberia, where she was shunned by the community, then raped and left for dead. Well, Stalin’s idea of “uplifting” was different from yours and mine.
New Babylon is at once more subtle in its artistry and more obvious in its message. Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg set their film at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871. It opens with scenes of capitalist debauchery, as top-hatted upper-class twits swill champagne and leer at the can- can. These are people having far too much fun; clearly they will soon get their comeuppance.
Within a few frames the French army has been defeated, Paris is lost to the workers of the Commune and the proletariat is triumphant – cue hilariously happy scenes of women sitting in Soviet-style ranks at their sewing machines.
Shostakovich had only a couple of months to write the score. Borrowings flash past – passages from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, snatches of Offenbach, even an ironic, wrong-note version of the “Marseillaise”. Somehow, he stitches these diverse ideas together to make a satisfying whole – maybe his experience as a pianist in the cinemas of Leningrad helped.
Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic in a sharply etched performance, relishing Shostakovich’s poster- paint colours. New Babylon is a good find for an anniversary year, but it can safely go back in the can now till the next one. Tel +44 20 7638 8891
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