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, Sønderborg, Denmark
The booklet illustration is by Martin Czinner Gottschalck, a horn player in the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. It’s not titled for us, but it’s clearly a Yorick moment with the skull firmly held in the centre of the painting, tan coloured and surrounded by ghostly white. The suspicion of a crown and spectral face - Hamlet’s father, I assume - wafts to the top left of the eerie patina. Hamlet, meanwhile, stands in semi-profile, columnar, to the extreme left hand side of the painting, also drenched in enveloping white. It’s not looking good.
The premise of this disc is certainly stimulating; a close focus on musical depictions of Hamlet. The most obvious is that of Tchaikovsky but it’s a function of well-programmed discs such as this-however gloomy the music - that novelties emerge. First, though, there’s a non-specific start in the shape of Friedrich Kuhlau’s Overture to William Shakespeare Op. 74, written in 1824. Kuhlau is beginning to emerge from a period of slumber critically speaking, and this overture reflects once again how dramatic were his instincts, how sure his sense of pacing, and how lively his orchestration. This strong and engaging piece suffers from only one real fault, and that is a far too early breaking out into an academic sounding fugal passage, but even this is relieved by the almost immediately appearing jaunty writing that develops a Beethovenian compound energy. Kuhlau, writing about the playwright in toto, obviously has the chance to inflect comedy with tragedy. The other composers invariably have to plough the darker furrow.
Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet is well played. The orchestra is not opulent in sound, but its taut concentration is not in doubt, and the recording engineers catch the gong with real verisimilitude. Liszt’s symphonic poem is balefully interior, suffused with urgent, military brass calls, fascinating textures and a dolce ed espressivo section of real worth. A generation younger, Joseph Joachim broods like the older Liszt with whose aesthetic he appears strongly aligned. His overture is powerfully energised, dramatic and musically apt. What it lacks in genuine thematic distinction, it makes up for in atmosphere and mood painting.
Edward MacDowell’s Hamlet and Ophelia, a double portrait of two symphonic poems, broods in characteristic fashion, though he manages to infuse Ophelian tenderness into the Hamlet part of the symphonic diptych so that a degree of balance is maintained. This means that his portrait of the Dane is less introspective than those by the other composers; and the Ophelia poem is warmly textured, though not impervious to Hamlet’s tempestuous interventions.
Though rather on the glowering side, temperamentally, and thus perfectly suited as symphonic poems or overtures, this unusual selection has been well put together. It’s worth a listen.
Jonathan Woolf

This unusual selection has been well put together. 

see also review by John Sheppard