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Silly Little Mouse

It is a hard to believe that there are in existence two Shostakovich operas in the comic genre that have until this time remained in the shadows. They are not even mentioned in such major surveys as Boris Schwarz's (1983) or Elizabeth Wilson's (1994). Fortunately, for at least one of these works, the current disc makes a welcome rescue for the cause.

As one of only a few works of Shostakovich's written expressly for children (another one being the Op. 69 Children's Notebook for solo piano; see review above), Silly Little Mouse takes its place in the composer's catalogue as a delightfully unjaded excursion into the light opera category. The fifteen-minute drama is based on a Samuel Marshak fairy tale about a mouselet whose chronic insomnia attracts the help of various creatures - a duck, a pig, a toad, a horse, and finally, a cat - each of whom takes a turn crooning the mouselet to sleep. In the end, the protagonist must be rescued from the jaws of the cat, whose ulterior motives are concealed behind his singularly successful serenade. The narrated story, along with its zoological cast and musical character shadings, invites inevitable comparison to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936), written three years earlier and which evidently was still lurking in Shostakovich's imagination.

Although the score is full of Shostakovich's fingerprints, listeners may be surprised by its disarming innocence and total absence of the usual sarcastic assaults and inflections. Instead the music is handled with the benevolent restraint of a relatively new father (Maxim was a year old and Galya three at the time of its composition) and seems exceedingly well-judged for children. It is music that is genuinely charming, warm, and witty, with enough sophistication to keep an adult entertained and amused after repeated hearings.

The drama unfolds in a single, unbroken stream of music, the composer's only film score to do so, and is built around the recurring lullaby, individually modified, that each of the animals sings in turn. Though the score was thought lost, Shostakovich was not one to let an idea go to waste as the lullaby tune reappears in the final song, Kreutzer Sonata, of the composer's 1960 vocal cycle Satires. The cast delivers a lively performance with enthusiastic players who convey all the unadulterated purity called for by the music. Silly Little Mouse is clearly a major little discovery. I predict that record producers will not take long to discover the marketing possibilities of pairing Shostakovich's Mouse with Prokofiev's Wolf as classic discmates for children.