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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)

Hamlet - complete music for the 1964 film, Op. 116/116a

Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Yablonsky

Rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, 6-14 February 2003

NAXOS 8.557446 [62'28]


It’s a curious love-affair that the Russians have with Shakespeare, when you consider that his art lies in the poetry of his language. No matter how well staged - or spectacularly filmed - after a Shakespeare performance what stays most firmly in the memory is the resonance of Shakespeare’s peerless words. In spite of my surname, I’m a Yorkshireman born and bred. Not speaking a word of Russian, apart from ‘da’ and ‘niet’, I find myself mercilessly harassed by a particular question. No, not ‘To be, or not to be’, but something rather more mundane: what is it like to speak and think only in Russian, and read or go to see a Shakespeare play translated into that tongue, so far removed in sight and sound even from modern English, let alone the mother tongue known to Shakespeare?

It’s a tough one to answer: the native English-speakers among us can’t even find out by learning Russian - because to find the real answer we’d have to ‘un-learn’ our native tongues. Ah, but then we’d still not be able to compare the two experiences, would we? At this point, you may select an appropriate expletive, then delete it. The nearest we can get is to observe, rather lamely, that a sizeable slice of Shakespeare’s supreme poetry must survive translation. Otherwise great musical dramatists like Shostakovich would never have been so transfixed by it.

Fortunately for all concerned, music doesn’t have such monumental barriers. The great Shakespeare-inspired music has pretty much the same impact whatever language you do your thinking in. According to John Riley’s nicely-organised and informative booklet note, in spite of being bewitched by the Bard Shostakovich wrote very little music as a direct consequence - a setting of Sonnet 66 and music for King Lear and Hamlet. In passing, I suspect he made up for it by producing rather a lot as an indirect consequence. Riley points out that Shostakovich first wrote music for a production of Hamlet as far back as 1932, at the fag-end of the heady days of Soviet artistic freedom. This disastrous production apparently attempted to re-interpret the scenario as an outrageous farce. Teasingly, Riley omits to mention whether any of that youthful score wormed its way into the film score of 1964, for in this we do indeed find moments where the music teeters towards, or falls headlong into, the comical.

We also find a score brimming with Shostakovich’s current characteristics of style. Anyone familiar with the Thirteenth Symphony, or even more pointedly the closely contemporaneous cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin, will immediately recognise his technique of rendering a theme as a series of vicious sledgehammer blows. There are also clear reminders of the Sixth and Eleventh Symphonies in another Shostakovich ‘special sound’, a worrisome whirring effect generated through a sustained legato string trill. Yet I also became aware, as I listened to music largely unfamiliar to me, of another ‘strand’ threading through the movements. More than once I found myself taken back to the Twelfth Symphony’s ominous second movement, in which Shostakovich reputedly observes Lenin’s hatching of his master-plan. Now, there’s something to ponder upon!

Hamlet is music for a film. The point of that perspicacious profundity is that the score suffers all the usual shortcomings of film music. On this CD, the ‘First Complete Recording of the Complete Film Score’, we are spared none of the inevitable snippets of sound - two tracks each last a minuscule fourteen seconds, of which the music spans only eleven. Often, endings are less than wholly edifying, presumably because the composer knew that the particular passages were destined to be faded - or drowned - out. Then again, there are passages required to underpin dialogue. Because these are designed to amplify mood without getting in the way of the words, very little is happening musically. Not least, even some of the more substantial passages, because they were designed to serve the drama, can’t hope to approach the kind of symphonic logic that can melt your brain.

That’s the down-side. Now for the up-side. The music is presented in chronological sequence and hence, by way of compensation for the loss of symphonic logic, retains quite a lot of the inherited dramatic logic. By happy coincidence, the more minuscule sound-bites (we might call them ‘sound-nibbles’) tend to line themselves up as aphoristic preludes to, or bridges between, longer items. In addition, some sequences of items cluster into ‘pseudo-movements’. One example is the opening four tracks - Overture, Military Music, Fanfares, and The Palace Ball. Another obvious one is what we can call the ‘Ophelia sequence’: tracks 18 to 21 chart her decline, madness, death and interment.

Riley points out that there is more of the Ball (track 6) on the CD than we hear in the film. Shostakovich seems to have ‘over-produced’ to allow for such fades, and hence failed to resist the temptation to write some sort of ‘ending’. Even where, to underpin a monologue, simple ‘mood noise’ is all that is called for, Shostakovich nevertheless maintains some slender thread of musical argument. When you think about it, this is second nature to him, being in fact a common expressive device in his concert music. Finally, there are several places where the film scenario allows the music its head. When we hear the music divorced from its proper context, these ‘set pieces’ form architectural ‘piles’ providing that vital measure of cohesion.

Taken with the composer’s enviable flair for orchestral sonority and supreme sensitivity to the drama it is meant to support, the upshot is a film score that comes nearer than most to providing a satisfactory experience purely as music - and, let’s not forget, that’s more than an hour of music. Somebody is probably going to shoot me for saying that. I don’t care, it’s true. Most complete film scores, and I’ve sat through quite a few, can’t hold a candle to this one when it comes to standing on their own hind legs. Feeling something like a series of well-developed sketches for some unrealised symphonic edifice, Shostakovich’s Hamlet is a very rare bird indeed. Mind you, it seems that I’m in good company: Riley implies that the composer himself toyed with the idea of creating a fully-fledged symphonic poem.

It’d be a bit of a beggar, wouldn’t it, if you’d read this far only to find me saying that the recording or performance didn’t do justice to the music! Well, not even I would be that cruel. You can safely go out and buy this - in fact, at Naxos’s price, should you feel the urge you can safely go forth and multi-buy. For a start, Yablonsky is firing on all cylinders, drawing oodles of atmosphere out of his mustard-keen Russian players. If he’s missed a trick, then I don’t think you’ll miss it either! You can feel a pent-up charge right from the outset, where the straining but mellow theme on unison strings and horns is bruised by savagely percussive interjections. The ensuing Military Music, with a beautifully judged rasping tuba, and the brief but brilliantly executed Fanfares combine to create a graduated bridge to The Palace Ball. This is a satisfyingly complete scherzo-like movement in which Shostakovich nods very firmly in the direction of Prokofiev, although its dizzy skittering and brassy ‘chase music’ do tend to set it apart from your average palatial knees-up (which, of course, is entirely the point). As just about the jolliest part of the entire score, Yablonsky rightly demands - and gets - maximum fizz from the orchestra.

In fact, Yablonsky demands - and gets - maximum ‘just about everything’. At one extreme, Shostakovich could throw up the most appalling walls of noise - and that’s meant as a compliment, because when others try the same trick, more often than not all we get is appalling noise. To get my drift, you only have to hear the almost effortless ease with which the orchestra brays out the massive music of the insubstantial ghost of Hamlet’s dear departed Dad (track 7) or feel the sheer inevitability they bring to the resurgence of these same phrases at the moment Hamlet is struck down (track 23). It’s at moments like these that you could be excused for wetting yourself - so, be warned! At the start of this paragraph I said ‘just about’, and sadly there is one place where this aspect of the score isn’t brought off successfully. Right at the very end Hamlet’s Funeral, which surely ought to be a colossal indictment of tragic failure, is just too brisk to be appalling.

At the other extreme, there are those minimal ‘slender threads’ of quiet ‘mood music’ that were never intended to hold our undivided attention. These are the real test of the performers. From our present-day perspective The Story of Horatio and the Ghost (track 3) sounds a bit like ‘Frankenstein’s Monster Stalks Palace Square’, but it’s a musical cliché only in respect of the obvious eerie string tremolandi. Once you’ve got over them, the combination of glutinous tuba and the sinister footsteps of piano and harp, punctuated by the bell-chimes of a celesta, lead us up a path to a different garden altogether. The same is true of The Ghost: After the ‘Hammy Horror’ tumult has abated, a timp pulses under tolling piano, hollow horns, flute discords, and cross-rhythmic snare-drum, then crawling strings and tuba (ghosts, perhaps, from the third movement of the Twelfth Symphony?). In such passages there’s not much ‘music’, but there is plenty of musical texture, pulse and dynamic, which Yablonsky, supported by keenly responsive playing, ‘stage-manages’ to hypnotic effect. By hypnosis does he hold our attention, or at least suspend our tendency to inattention.

Coming somewhere between these extremes are other dramatic episodes of which the Poisoning Scene (track 16) has to be the plum. In this, elements of the two extremes are combined with music more aligned with ‘knockabout’ pieces like The Ball (track 6) or especially Arrival of the Players (track 10) - this latter being, in all but name, a boisterous Russian dance with which the orchestra has a whale of a time. However, Yablonsky is well aware that in the Poisoning Scene the ‘knockabout’ music is more than just ‘Keystone Kops’, and brings out the sinister undertones that make it reminiscent of ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’.

The most breathtakingly original writing in the score comes in the music for Ophelia. Shostakovich’s inspired choice of the brittle, fragile sound of the harpsichord is topped only by the way he deploys the instrument. It first appears in Hamlet’s Parting from Ophelia (track 8). Strings play the ‘Hamlet’ theme, a firmly diatonic, stately ‘baroque’ variation sounding as pure as the driven snow. The harpsichord responds with music that is by contrast harmonically unstable. Later, in the Descent into Madness, strings again set the scene, alternating rhythmically repeated notes with butterfly flutterings, compounding the established sense of instability. The harpsichord enters sounding for all the world like the Aubade for mandolins that fails to awaken the ‘dead’ Juliet in Act 3 of Prokofiev’s ballet, only here slowed-down, stilted and unsteady. Before the section ends, it is reduced to aimless drifting in even beats. In the ensuing Ophelia’s insanity, the terminal state is confirmed by setting the meandering harpsichord against richly sonorous string phrases. Finally, in the Death of Ophelia, Hamlet’s ‘stately’ variation becomes a lament on solo violin against which the harpsichord completes its doleful disintegration.

Prior to this CD, you could hear this astounding sequence of music only be seeing the film: it is represented only by that final item in the Hamlet Suite Op 116a, prepared by Lev Atovmian and identified within this recording. Regardless of the standard of performance and quality of recording, that alone makes this an essential purchase for Shostakovich fans, followers of film music, and anyone with even half a heart. Maybe one day somebody will do it better, but until that day Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic give every impression of playing this with consummate sympathy and understanding.

As it happens, the harpsichord is also at the centre of my comments on the recording. Sample any few seconds at random, and you get the impression of full, warm, and detailed sound in a pleasing ambience. Extend your sample length and you start to notice a few oddities. The ambience varies. Perspectives seem to shift: certain instruments - notably the brass - are now close up, and then set back. The harpsichord especially seems to be in its own isolated environment, insulated from the rest of the orchestra. In, for example, Hamlet’s Monologue I can clearly hear the horn-players’ intakes of breath, but in other places I can’t. The term ‘Decca Phase 4’ springs to mind.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, given the context of the score. Microphonic manipulation, provided you don’t get too close to the living, breathing musicians, is an entirely legitimate device in film - recall Prokofiev’s excitement at the possibilities this offered him when writing Alexander Nevsky! I don’t know, and the booklet doesn’t enlighten me as to what extent Shostakovich drew on such techniques in this score, but if he did so then that would explain it. Not that I care much: even with the jiggery-pokery, the sound is eminently ear-worthy, and anyway the encapsulation of the harpsichord actually reinforces the music’s import.

Prospective purchasers should note that this disc is also available in SACD format. SACD is demonstrably of superior quality to CD. However, this does not automatically eliminate the quirks I have mentioned, as these are matters of microphony. The higher quality could even work against it, by clarifying the quirks, much as CD remastering exposed the flaws in, as well as the finer points of, analogue originals. I’m not saying that it will, merely that it might. Until I have a rush of blood and invest in a SACD player, I won’t be in a position to judge.

Of course, no matter how good the recording, if the playing’s duff then so is the CD. My only carp about the actual instrumental sound is that the tam-tam sounds a bit thin and damp. That apart, the playing throughout is thrilling and brimming with character. Ensemble, notably the ‘blend’ of the strings, is not always drilled with military precision, largely because it comes a definite second place to playing the music with real, red-blooded feeling and at white-heat. It’s Hobson’s Choice, then, but not at all a bad one with which to be stuck.

Paul Serotsky

See also review by Colin Clarke

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