Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Battleship Potemkin @ Barbican Hall, London

11 January 2008

Veteran pop duo Pet Shop Boys join the BBC Concert Orchestra in a screening of Battleship Potemkin at the Barbican.

Although first unveiled over three years ago, this venture benefited from the relative intimacy of the Barbican Hall.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have gone to great pains to breathe contemporary relevance into Eisenstein’s cinematic masterpiece with their score, but what does it add?

Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is one of those films that everyone has heard of, but one wonders how many have actually seen it? Made in 1926 it is, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, ahead of its time in many ways. Eisenstein uses techniques that were innovative at that time (e.g. the framing of great crowd scenes and his use of light and shade) but there is, of course, no inbuilt soundtrack.

At its premiere in Moscow the accompaniment was a medley of existing pieces by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky amongst others. When the film was shown later that year in Berlin, the director commissioned an original score from the Austrian modernist Edmund Meisel their desire being to create a total experience for the audience. It was a success, but even so Eisenstein desired that the score to his masterpiece be re-scored every decade in order to retain its freshness and relevance for each new revolutionary generation.

The Pet Shop Boys‘ version was first unveiled in 2004 in Trafalgar Square in association with the ICA. At the time Tennant said: “We liked the idea that we were going to take something made in the 1920s and put contemporary electronic music to it.” But what has their score actually added? There can be no doubt that The Pet Shop Boys are the most successful pop duo of the last two decades but there is a huge gulf between the instant gratification of a three-minute pop ditty and a score that lasts nearly 75 minutes. It seems a wasted opportunity that they didn’t compose their score with a full symphony orchestra in mind as that would have had far more of an impact than the well-bolstered string sections of the BBC Concert Orchestra who, in essence, merely provided a halo of sound to accompany the electronic score that the duo had produced.

On its own terms that score tended to underpin the film with a repetitiveness that would have done Steve Reich or Philip Glass proud. Towards the climax of the film the battleship tries to outrun a convoy of ships at night, and it was only at this point did I really think for the first time that the music was adding to the film. Its measured tread lent the drama a real sense of anticipation that had been lacking elsewhere. It was this flash of inspiration that really did Eisenstein proud. Certainly the Barbican Hall was the right environment for this enterprise, but ultimately it wasn’t the pole-axing experience I had anticipated.

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