Shostakovich was a bright-eyed 22-year-old when invited to score a silent film: New Babylon was the title, and the subject the 1871 Paris Commune. The Parisian revolutionaries made a heroic stand but were crushed: their portrayal gave the Bolshevik romantics an opportunity to revel in their own success. Having worked as a cinema pianist, the composer jumped at the chance: in contrast to the prevailing approach at that time - inserting quotes of "suitable" music by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky - he would quote Milhaud and Stravinsky. Alas, his score was deemed unplayable, and the film fell foul of the censors, being cut and cut again. It was 50 years before the supposedly lost score was reunited on stage with the partially reconstituted film; the score became a concert suite, the film mouldered on in the archives.
Enter, in front of a big screen, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic. It's fun from the off as the opening credits roll, followed by champagne-fuelled orgies with boulevard society: deploying trumpet, tuba, and cymbals over pizzicato strings, Shostakovich invites us to loathe the bourgeoisie and plot with the oppressed. The heroine is a shop assistant, her lover a foot-soldier, and their milieu a starving sea of wage-slaves. The intricate score mirrors every jump-cut between riches, poverty, and war. This may be a youthful work, but it pre-echoes everything from the Leningrad Symphony to Lady Macbeth.
The film would have been riveting even in silence. Made by a Jewish collective whom the Soviets subsequently suppressed, it dwells on wonderfully expressive faces and attitudes: the atmosphere of 1870s Paris may be cleverly evoked, but what comes across powerfully is Twenties Petrograd. And because the music is so perfectly attuned to the cinematic emotions, one does not perceive it as a separate entity.
At the Barbican there was another reason for this: the subtle brilliance with which Jurowski matched sound to image. Like the on-screen trains, every musical episode came and went perfectly on time. I hope this concert was recorded: here at last is the soundtrack this marvellous film deserves.Reuse content