D.S.C.H. Shostakovich on DVD-ROM. (Digital Media Reviews: Film Music Web Sites)

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D.S.C.H. Shostakovich on DVD-ROM. Colchester, England: Chandos Multimedia CT-IAN 50001/CHAN 55001, 2000. [Requires IBM PC with 266MHz Pentium or higher with Windows 95/98/ME or higher, or Macintosh Power PC with MacOS 7.5 or higher; Quick Time 4.0 (included) or higher; 32MB RAM; 8X or faster DVD-ROM drive; 10MB of available hard-disc space; SVGA monitor/display card with 800x600-bit color (Mac 32K colors); 16-bit sound card and speakers, Mouse; and 28.8kbps modem or higher for Web links. $48.]

The first of the six principal sites I visited on D.S.C.H. Shostakovich, the initial volume in Chandos's multimedia "Cultural Heritage Series," was the "Film Archive," which offers thirty-three clips of footage relating to Dmitry Shostakovich and/or his works between 1934 and 1974. There is a lot of very rare and fascinating material here, including a conversation (with subtitles) between Shostakovich and impresario Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko during a 1933 rehearsal for the composer's second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsansk, followed by a scene from the first Moscow performance of that opera. Near the end, this section offers scenes in color, taken from a Russian documentary on Shostakovich, from a rehearsal in 1974 of the composer's first opera, The Nose. Initially we see fragments of the rehearsal with such figures as conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who brought this scathing, avant-garde work back to the stage after it had lain buried for more than forty years, the composer's son Maxim, and Shostakovich himself. But the clip ends with an extended section of the opera during which the film's director suddenly cuts to and holds a close-up of the attentive composer, whose usually placid, somewhat scowly faced demeanor suddenly--and very movingly--gives way to a long grin as he takes obvious delight in the antics of his own creation. One needs no more than a single moment such as this to justify the existence of this CD-ROM. But there are other jewels as well. As one other example, a clip of Shostakovich performing the finale of his First Piano Concerto, around the same time as Lady Macbeth, reveals pianism so relentlessly driven that one wonders at times whether the film is running at the proper speed.

Even more stunning, however, is the second clip, labeled "Bazar: Fragments from a Cartoon-film by M. Tsekhanovsky with Music by D. Shostakovich." There's a much larger story here, which can be learned only by reading the Russian of the title card, which indicates that this fragment in fact comes from an unfinished cartoon opera, in black and white, based on Pushkin's satirical tale "The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda [or Blockhead]." Shostakovich began working on this with the animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky in 1933, ultimately producing fifteen pieces that became his op. 36, dated 1936. I had never dreamed that any of this film survived, much less with Shostakovich's score. But the brilliance, in the two-and-one-half-minute fragment offered here, of Tsekhanovsky's multi-plane, highly rhythmic animation, which features quite grotesque drawings of characters and animals, combined with Shostakovich's often shrill and hysterical music, have made me more than eager to track clown whatever else might rema in of this aborted masterpiece, which film historian Jay Leyda suggests (Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film [New York: Collier Books, 1960], 809) might have changed the course of animation in the Soviet Union had it been finished.

And therein lies one of the major problems I have with this multimedia project. A work such as The Tale of the Priest represents major unexplored territory in Shostakovich's oeuvre, and one would think that anyone interested enough in the composer to explore the many offerings on this CD-ROM would like to know as much as possible about this unique cartoon opera, including how much of it survives. (I, for one, would gladly trade most of the political speeches also included in the "Film Archive" for even one extra minute of the cartoon, presuming more exists. …