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Orango (Prologue); Symphony No. 4
Van Doren, Manfredi; Fabiano, Bekbosunov, Chaney, Strange, Brancoveanu, A. Gonzalez, McKinny, Bisch; Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0249 (2)
This significant release contains live December 2011 performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Shostakovich works — including the world premiere of one of the composer’s abortive opera projects, Orango, commissioned in 1932 by the Bolshoi. Thirteen pages of piano score for the prologue of this satirical work were unearthed in Moscow in 2004 by musicologist Olga Digonskaya. Shostakovich had a draft libretto coauthored by Soviet literary star Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy (“The Red Count”) and his journalist collaborator Alexander Starchakov, a future victim of Stalinist purges. The work was to be part sci-fi but largely cultural satire, with a cross-bred part-human orangutan rising to military and economic heights in the West before being sold to a Soviet circus. (Compare the partially animalian characters of the contemporaneous Kafka and Bulgakov.) Shostakovich’s sketches recycle the overture and some other melodic material from his 1931 ballet The Bolt and add other borrowings from his own oeuvre and some allusions to both the popular and classical Russian canons. The piano score was orchestrated into a performing edition by Gerard McBurney, whose program note in the booklet elucidates the context.
We’re left with a torso — the prologue was intended to be a frame, set at a huge celebratory festival, to three acts of flashback on Orango’s part. At the Disney Concert Hall, Peter Sellars devised a video-based staging for the music. He and Salonen cast young singers, several of whom have already been making promising names for themselves. The level of the vocalism is high; unfortunately, only the lovely-voiced Russian–American soprano Yulia van Doren and trenchant, versatile Kazakh new-music tenor Timur Bekbosunov (playing non-Russian characters) prove comfortable with and convincing in the phonetics — a key factor, surely, in rendering Shostakovich’s stage works authentically.
Ryan McKinny’s narrating Entertainer handles the lion’s share of the music with a strong bass-baritone that evokes his fellow Texan Thomas Stewart. Michael Fabiano’s fine, clear tenor sounds healthy in the Zoologist’s little operetta-flavored arioso. As Orango, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu has little to do but grunt. The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays with precision and daring, giving the ballet movements full, apt flair.
The second CD offers a grippingly fine performance of the complexly structured Fourth Symphony, like Orango alternating parodistic and mechanistically rhythmical passages. Scheduled to have its premiere in 1936, by which time Shostakovich’s political travails over Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had kicked in, its first performance didn’t take place until 1961, during Khrushchev’s cultural “thaw.” Salonen’s reading — and the crackerjack L.A. Phil percussion section — are right on target here.
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