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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Music for the theatre – Hamlet, The Human Comedy and King Lear
Full track listing at end of review
 *Nina Romanova (mezzo)
St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra/Edward Serov
rec. 1984, Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Hamlet and King Lear – Complete incidental music
Full track listing at end of review
Louise Winter (mezzo)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Igor Khokhlovin (player-king)
Luba Stuchevskaya (player-queen)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder
rec. 13-15 June 1994, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK

Experience Classicsonline


These two recordings – made a decade apart – couldn’t be more different. The Northern Flowers issue offers only some of the incidental music Shostakovich penned for these plays, whereas Signum’s disc is a much more comprehensive – and scholarly – attempt to present all the music written for Hamlet and King Lear. Indeed, as the back-cover blurb reminds us, these are world premieres achieved, in part, through the sterling efforts of Shostakovich expert Gerard McBurney, who has also given us a performing version of the composer’s music-hall show Hypothetically Murdered (Signum SIGCD051). The Serov/St. Petersburg collection also includes excerpts from the music for Pavel Sukhotin’s play The Human Comedy, adapted from Balzac’s Le Comédie humaine; again, this is restricted to just a few numbers.
Shostakovich’s 1932 score for Nikolai Akimov’s controversial production of Hamlet precedes the composer’s fall from grace, signalled by the devastating criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and, to a lesser extent, his ballet The Limpid Stream. The scores for Grigori Kozintsev’s productions of Hamlet and King Lear come later, and despite some fine music – notably in the Fool’s ten songs – the abrasive energy and wit of the 1932 Hamlet has been lost. That said, this music is never less than accomplished, and these contrasting – and complementary – discs make that abundantly clear.
The Soviet-era Northern Flowers recording is typical of Melodiya issues of the period – rough, but invested with an idiomatic tang that’s hard to resist in this music. Serov gets Hamlet off to a sizzling start, the narrow soundstage opening out nicely as the music progresses. Those ripe Russian woodwinds are well played and recorded, and the hard drum thwacks at the start of ‘A flourish and dance music’ certainly made me jump. I must say this brazen sound and edge-of-the-seat playing really appeals to me here; it’s a quality I miss in Riccardo Chailly’s much-too-civilised DSCH recordings for Decca and, to some extent, in Elder’s immaculate presentation of these theatrical scores.
The plucked basses, flutes and eye-watering trumpets of this Russian band – allied to deftly sprung rhythms – are an absolute joy to hear, ‘The hunt’ presented with all the pizzazz of a Hollywood Western. Vulgar? Oh yes, but who cares when it’s played with such unbridled energy and flair. As for ‘The actors’ pantomime’ and ‘Ophelia’s ditty’, they trip along most attractively, crowned by impressive contributions from the overworked percussion section. But it’s not all a mad mêlée, and Shostakovich gives us gentle ‘Lullaby’ to prove the point. As for the doleful Dies irae in ‘Requiem’, it’s most effective, the music building to a ferocious climax. Add to that the insouciance and swagger of ‘Fortinbras’s march’ and you have a most entertaining little suite.
Mark Elder’s recording contains all the incidental music from Akimov’s Hamlet, plus two items Kozintsev requested for his 1954 production of the play. There’s much to explore here – 32 tracks, some lasting a mere 10 to 20 seconds – all superbly recorded in the superior acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. And, as expected, the CBSO – well-trained under Sir Simon Rattle – play very well indeed. Straight A/B comparisons with the Serov excerpts are very instructive. Elder’s ‘Introduction and night watch’ may be less febrile, but it’s beautifully detailed and rhythmically refined; the downside is that dramatic contrasts aren’t as strong, the presentation rather more po-faced than Akimov’s strange production might suggest.
That said, Elder and the CBSO give a thoroughly engaging account of these orchestral snippets; and what they might lack in adrenalin they more than make up for in the nuances and subtleties they find in this multi-faceted score. Indeed, if Serov gives the impression this is just a daisy-chain of overheated, rumbustious tunes then Elder’s reading reminds us that even here Shostakovich is as original and compelling as he is in other genres. As for the Russian dialogue – between Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, for instance – it’s an acquired taste, but at least it’s kept to a bare minimum.
At around five hours Akimov’s original production was far too long and had to be shortened. Some of the music was cut as well, but with the help of a piano reduction McBurney has restored the Act V out-takes. I’m less sure about the sung parts – David Wilson-Johnson in ‘Requiem’, for instance – but it’s hardly a big issue. A sprightly ‘Fortinbras’s march’, plus the ‘Gigue’ and ‘Finale’ from the 1954 production, round off this part of the disc. Indeed, it’s a measure of the thoughtful, scholarly way this project has been realised that it all dovetails so well; a very impressive achievement all round.
Regrettably, Shostakovich’s music for The Human Comedy has only survived as the Ballet Suite No. 3 (1952). That said, there’s enough left to show the composer at his engaging best; just sample those lovely, cinematic pans across Paris and the Seine (trs. 9 and 12). The acerbic Shostakovich isn’t far away, though – ‘The police station’, the delicious ‘Gavotte’ and ‘March’ played with plenty of wit and point. It never ceases to amaze me how Shostakovich can make a simple march sound like a giddy dance, as he does here. Those interested in hearing more excerpts from this score should seek out Neeme Järvi’s fine 2-CD set of Shostakovich’s ballet music (Chandos CHAN 10088). It’s a terrific collection, and one that all DSCH devotees should have on their shelves.
Serov and his orchestra are as bracing as ever in the seven excerpts from King Lear. The ‘Return from the hunt’ features some wonderfully Russianate horns; Elder’s version is altogether more reticent – elegant, even – but then that’s his way with this music. What really distinguishes his recording is the ‘Fool’s ten songs’, sung here by David Wilson-Johnson. They’re a motley collection, yet they form a convincing – and highly concentrated – little song-cycle. The light, chamber-like scoring is very well captured too; as for Wilson-Johnson, he’s a little hammy, but not too much so. Elder is a sensitive accompanist throughout.
The Northern Flowers recording is generally bright without being fatiguing, although the brass and searing strings do become a little too acid in the excitable music of ‘In Regan’s castle’. That said, ‘The military encampment’ is rather more restrained, the hugely theatrical drumming of ‘March’ and the rat-a-tat of snare drums in ‘Trumpets’ simply thrilling. But it’s the start to ‘Cordelia’s ballad’ that will really make your hair stand on end. Mezzo Nina Romanova reminds me of the soulful Elena Obraztsova in Claudio Abbado’s classic DG recording of Alexander Nevsky. Hers is a typically warm, Russianate voice, and quite steady too. Louise Winter, for Elder, is much cooler and more distant, but no less affecting for that; again, Shostakovich’s chamber-like scoring is well captured by the Signum team.
Two very different approaches to this music, both compelling in their own way. Serov will please those who like their vodka neat and from the bottle, whereas Elder will appeal to moderate and discerning tipplers. The latter’s performances are also important musical documents, but that doesn’t mean they are as dry as dust – far from it. Factor in spoken and sung texts – with translations – and highly detailed liner-notes by McBurney and the Signum disc becomes self-recommending. The Cyrillic text in the Northern Flowers issue – complete with stilted English translations and bizarre typos – won’t win any prizes for presentation, but it should win friends for this marvellous music.
Mandatory listening for all Shostakovich fans.
Dan Morgan

Track listing – Northern Flowers/Serov
Hamlet, Op. 32a – excerpts (1932)
Introduction and night watch [2:35]
A flourish and dance music [2:10]
The hunt [1:42]
Actors’ pantomime [1:39]
Ophelia’s ditty [1:43]
Lullaby [1:23]
Requiem [1:46]
Fortinbras’s march [2:10]
The Human Comedy, Op. 37a – excerpts (1934)
View of Paris [2:25]
Police officer [1:20]
Gavotte [2:15]
Banks of the Seine [3:45]
March [2:05]
King Lear, Op. 58a – excerpts (1941)
Return from the hunt [0:48]
The scene on the heath [2:00]
In Regan’s castle [1:13]
The military encampment [1:20]
March [1:32]
Trumpets [1:17]
Cordelia’s ballad* [4:35]
Track listing – Signum/Elder
Hamlet, Op. 32 (1932) (complete incidental music from the 1932 premiere)
Act I [9:27]
Act II [5:13]
Act III [10:03]
Act IV [10:43]
Act V [9:30]
Hamlet (incidental music from the 1954 production) [3:08]
Gigue [1:37]
Finale [1:29]
King Lear, Op. 58a (1941) (complete incidental music from the 1941 production) [24:58]
Prelude and Cordelia’s ballad [4:44]
The return from the hunt [0:49]
The Fool’s ten songs
1. He who decides ... [0:25]
2. Fools had ne’er less grace in a year [0:56]
3. He that keeps nor crust nor crumb [0:15]
4. The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long [0:44]
5. Fathers that wear rags ... [0:38]
6. When priests are more in word than matter [0:56]
7. A fox when one has caught her [0:57]
8. The cod piece that will house ... [0:49]
9. He that has and a tiny little wit [0:47]
10. That sir which serves and seeks for gain [2:03]
Finale of Act I [1:25]
The approach of the storm [1:29]
The scene on the heath [2:03]
The blinding of Gloucester [0:59]
The military encampment [1:37]
Fanfares [1:08]
March [2:09]

























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