I first made acquaintance with Shostakovich's music for Kozintsev's 1964 film of Shakespeare's Hamlet through Bernard Herrmann's cracking 1974 recording, included in his Music from the Great Shakespeare Films (Decca Phase4 455 156-2). I remember being bowled over by its dark dramatic power, rhythmic vivacity and extraordinary orchestrations. Herrmann's recording included a fairly substantial suite of six movements lasting some 21 minutes and comprising: 'Introduction', 'Ball at the Palace', 'The Ghost'; 'Scene of the Poisoning', 'The Arrival of the Players'; and 'The Duel and Death of Hamlet'. (Shostakovich's friend Lev Atovmian arranged eight movements into a suite which is integrated into this Naxos recording) [It is not hard to see why Bernard Herrmann admired this score so much for there are certain similarities between it and much of Herrmann's music for the Hitchcock thrillers of the late 1950s and 60s.]
This first complete recording of Shostakovich's published film score, in 23 movements, lasts some 62½ minutes covering much more ground and offers the opportunity to fully appreciate this celebrated score's remarkable power.
The 'Overture' immediately proclaims a brooding atmosphere full of menace and dark intrigue. Brutal, staccato chords crash over a dirge-like tune that gives way to mindlessly unrelenting 'Military Music'. Even 'The Palace Ball', one of the highlights of the score, holds no joy, only a despairing weariness and threat in its harsh, angular, astringent swift, yet flat-footed dance. 'The Ball' is even more joyless. 'Horatio and the Ghost' and, especially, 'The Ghost' (for me, the highlight of this amazing score and Yablonsky, here, even more effective than Herrmann) are studies in terror and creepiness that make similar efforts by today's Hollywood composers pale by comparison and all achieved without any resort to synthesisers. You hear heavy spectral treads, grisly echoes, and intimations of rotting leaves swirling eerily across battlements, a truly flesh-creeping musical experience. As a sort of extension to 'The Ghost', 'The Poisoning Scene' is another tour-de-force with extraordinarily imaginative orchestrations including equally trenchant use of pizzicato strings, eerie pecking-like oboe figures, harp, wooden block, timpani and bass drum.
As a partial antidote to all the gloom there is the serenely elegant 'In the Garden' and tender music with a plaintive harpsichord solo prominent for 'Hamlet's Parting from Ophelia', but even in this cue blight and blackness intrude. 'Palace Music' shows off Shostakovich's doleful sense of humour while 'The Arrival of the Players,' with its stark fanfares, is as harsh as it is sardonic. Ophelia's music grows sadder, more plaintive, more tragic through a series of four cues from 'Ophelia's Descent into Madness,' in which the harpsichord figures grow more and more despairing and dissonant, to the grisly melancholy of 'Death of Ophelia'. 'Hamlet at Ophelia's Grave' seems to have no sense of mourning, only of the resolution of revenge moving intractably forward, with the harpsichord figure now grim indeed. The finale music for 'The Duel - The Death of Hamlet - Hamlet's Funeral' is toweringly, mindlessly unrelenting dramatic and tense set piece. The music of Hamlet's funeral leaves a sense of irresolution but then perhaps only an enigma can follow with a Royal line practically eradicated?
A masterpiece of film scoring that should be studied by every aspiring young Hollywood composer. An exciting and splendidly atmospheric performance in very good sound.
Gary Dalkin adds:-
The SACD version, which I was sent, makes the experience even more chillingly, horrifyingly immersive and the sound is excellent. I have to say though that while this is doubtless stunningly effective music in context I've not seen the film as a stand alone musical experience it is so relentlessly bleak, tortured and neurotic I can only praise the achievement while adding that I don't particularly care to ever play the disc again. One may argue over the relative merits of the films and the scores, but give me Walton's music for Olivier's Hamlet, or better still, Patrick Doyle's superlative score for Branagh's William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Still, as Ian suggests, the importance of Shostakovich's score can not be under-estimated and it is essential listening for all those serious about film music.