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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Hamlet – complete film score (1964), Op. 116 / 116a
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky.
Rec. Studio 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, February 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557446 [62’28"]

Shostakovich’s film score for Hamlet is a fairly late work. Its content is not in the least like the earlier film scores written when the composer was firmly under The Authorities’ thumb. This is music of the composer’s maturity and, make no mistake about it, is generally superb.

Naxos has a number of series on the go, and this one is from their Film Music line. As is often the case with record companies these days, we have here a first recording of the complete score, including sections previously unavailable. The score is played superbly by a Russian orchestra well versed in the Shostakovich idiom. A few months ago I was less than welcoming with the same orchestra and conductor’s recording of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, because of the extreme dullness of the performance. I am happy to relate that this latest recording is not similarly affected.

The disc not only restores the eight movement suite arranged by Lev Atovmian as Op. 116a, but also includes some music not used in the film. This is where the composer has prepared a score which is faded out in the film and the remainder not used as part of the soundtrack. Naxos is to be thanked for restoring this music to us in such a convenient form.

There are one or two banalities, such as the use of a harpsichord with the orchestra. This sounds quite anachronistic heard without the visual impact of the film; it might be quite alright in context. One section is to do with Ophelia going mad and the second half of the theme is vaguely reminiscent of "If I Were a Rich Man", scored for harpsichord and strings.

The suite as recorded here follows the sequence of the film. The film is an adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play by Grigori Kozintzev. It started as a politically sensitive version of the story to provide the audience with the clear Soviet message. This meant that the film became largely a three way political drama, in which Shostakovich weaves the main themes around the three main characters. The play ends in a funeral, leaving the state leaderless and at risk of attack. Against the backdrop of reminders from the authorities that the Soviet Union needed to be strong and united, the film could have been seen as a criticism of the state, under the control of an incorrigibly corrupt regime, and therefore a risky position to be in. Shostakovich and his director decided that to promote the film as a classic adaptation of the original. This seemed to allow them to get away with it.

The whole disc lasts 62 minutes and is a very respectable slice of music. Naxos can be very proud of this issue. In the score there are elements of other Shostakovich works, as you might imagine. These include reminiscences of the eleventh and thirteenth symphonies and of some of the string quartets.

The recording, as is the case now with many of Naxos’s current offerings is very good. It has a believable acoustic without being a spectacular hi-fi product as some of the mainstream companies might have recorded it. This means that in the domestic setting the recording comes over very naturally and is very enjoyable, without shaking the house to its foundations.

It is a great pity that Kosintsev’s film is not better known, as this may have generated a bigger market for the disc. As it is, it is likely to be welcomed with open arms by all fans of the composer. Very well done, to all concerned.

John Phillips

see also reviews by Paul Serotsky, Colin Clarke and Ian Lace/Gary Dalkin


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