Music inspired by Shakespeare and Hamlet
Friedrich KUHLAU (1786-1832)
Overture to William Shakespeare Op. 74 (1826) [9:07]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Hamlet Fantasy Overture Op. 67 (1888) [18:04]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hamlet Symphonic Poem No 10 (1858) [14:22]
Joseph JOACHIM (1831-1907)
Overture to Hamlet Op 4 (1853) [15:06]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
Two Symphonic Poems Op 22 (1884) – Hamlet [8:37]; Ophelia [4:49]
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ziva
rec. 17-22 May 2010, Alsion, Sřnderborg, Denmark
DANACORD DACOCD682 [70:07]

It is easy to name a whole series of musical works inspired by Romeo and Juliet but much less so those inspired by Hamlet. It may be, as many claim, Shakespeare’s greatest play but it lacks so many obvious cues for musical depiction. Romeo and Juliet offers the lovers, singly and together, the warring families, Friar Laurence, and the tragic conclusion whereas Hamlet offers little but the gloomy Dane himself, Ophelia and, again, a tragic conclusion. Three of the composers on this disc nonetheless used all or most of these elements to create musical pictures of the play. The fourth – MacDowell – provided separate portraits of Hamlet and Ophelia, and the fifth – Kuhlau – provided a portrait of the author himself in an Overture that formed part of the incidental music to a play by the Norwegian author Casper Johannes Boye.

Tchaikovsky’s Overture is by some way the most frequently performed of these pieces. It may not be as popular as his Romeo and Juliet but it makes up in drama what it lacks in the emotional appeal of the love music in the earlier Overture. Liszt’s Symphonic Poem concentrates more on the introspective aspects of the central character, although both it and the Tchaikovsky Overture have contrasting episodes depicting Ophelia. Hearing them in succession on this disc it is clear that the two composers had a similar view of the characters of the play, with Hamlet as a noble, introspective, tragic hero. Both – and indeed all four of the composers inspired by this play - bring to mind pictures and descriptions of nineteenth century actors in the part, in many ways very different to the approach of modern actors and directors. Joachim’s Overture – the earliest of the three - seems a much fresher piece than the rest, perhaps because it was the least familiar. Interesting as it is to compare them the individual merits of the works are better observed if they are taken singly to avoid a potentially gloomy monotony. MacDowell’s two pieces were inspired by the performances of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in the play. They are pleasant and competent works but lacking anything like the same degree of conviction as the other Hamlet inspired works.

The Kuhlau Overture is by some way the earliest of the works here (1826). It catches the listener right from the start with its imaginative harmonies and scoring. It is strange that it is seldom performed outside the composer’s native Denmark but it is well worth getting to know from this recording. The performance, like all on the disc, is capable and honest if without the last degree of fullness or refinement. I should stress that this is by no means the backhanded compliment it sounds. Maybe the strings lack the depth of tone in the Tchaikovsky of some of their rivals, but the essential character and shape of each of the works is always captured, perhaps better than in those by better known conductors and orchestras. With workmanlike and musicianly performances like these, together with an imaginative and unusual programme and very good booklet notes, this disc should appeal additionally to those whose interest is in their literary inspirations.

John Sheppard

Musicianly performances... an imaginative and unusual programme