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Shostakovich: Jazz Suites Nos. 1 and 2

You can call just about anything you want jazz, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to listen when you do. Someone should have explained this to Dmitri Shostakovich. A Soviet composer best known for his symphonies and string quartets, Shostakovich was also one of a long line of composers who took it upon themselves to elevate jazz from cafe music to a more serious status, as the liner notes to the present recording put it. Thanks, but no thanks, Dmitri.

Shostakovich’s first “Jazz Suite” was written in 1934 for a Leningrad competition designed to encourage composers in this task. It is not jazz. It is completely without rhythmic subtlety; its attempts at blues in the opening waltz and the closing foxtrot (blues) are embarrassingly ersatz. And its middle movement is a polka. The second “Jazz Suite,” from four years later, is subtitled “Suite for Stage Variety Orchestra,” which is far more accurate than the title itself in describing this sugary, cute, lighter-than-air music.

Admittedly, Shostakovich may have had it in mind to subtly subvert what he felt were the “ugly forms in which the universal, almost mindless enthusiasm for [jazz] has manifested itself.” These suites’ square rhythms almost demand that you interpret them as irony, if you want to justify them. Another explanation is that Shostakovich thought jazz and light music were synonymous, and gravely misapplied the former term. Take your pick.

The disc also contains a suite from the entertaining ballet “The Bolt” and an amusing arrangement of “Tea for Two” (called “Tahiti Trot” here for some reason). All are played with spirit aplenty by Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, who should get back to the real Shostakovich now.

Originally Published