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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

Hamlet, Op. 116/116a
(Complete Film Score)

Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Naxos 8.557446
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Also released on Hybrid SACD 6.110062
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic

This issue is also available in hybrid SACD format, but the CD here may be the preferred venue, at least if I believe certain negative commentary on the internet. In any event, on to the issue at hand… Is it just a coincidence that arguably the best film scores by the two giants of Soviet music, Prokofieff and Shostakovich, bear the same opus number? Prokofieff's Ivan the Terrible (Op. 116), a less popular effort than his Alexander Nevsky and Lieutenant Kijé, has in recent decades emerged as one of the composer's deeper scores. This Shostakovich Hamlet has always been regarded, with The New Babylon (his first effort in the genre), as his strongest among the approximately forty film scores he composed. Personally, I would take Hamlet over The New Babylon, both for its greater sense of drama and its darker, more profound music.

This Naxos recording, by the way, contains the complete score to Hamlet and includes the numbers from the suite, which was arranged by composer and Shostakovich friend Lev Atovmian. The suite, by the way, was recorded quite effectively by Bernard Herrmann (no slouch when it came to film music) and the non-concertizing National Philharmonic Orchestra on a London Phase-4 LP, issued in 1975. Actually they performed only six of the suite's eight numbers. In any event, there are 62:28 of music on this Naxos disc, most of it able to stand on its own in the concert hall. The only music not worthwhile in the score are a few brief fanfares and a couple of other mood-setting cues that fit the action and mood in the film quite effectively.

Some of the more notable numbers here are #4, The Palace Ball, which features playful but sardonic dance music and an absolutely Tchaikovskian middle section; The Ghost (#7), a dark and deliciously unsettling number; the ensuing Hamlet's Parting from Ophelia, with its atmospheric writing for harpsichord; #16, The Poisoning Scene, with its clacking percussive effects and spooky sense of doom; and the death scenes, for Ophelia (#20) and Hamlet (#23).

Like much of Shostakovich's output, the music on the disc is dark and sometimes militaristic, sometimes frantic, as if under pressure to escape some oppressive power. Much of this score wouldn't be out of place in one of the composer's symphonies, particularly the choral #13, subtitled Babiy Yar, written two years before this 1964 effort.

The performance by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra here is excellent, with conductor Dmitry Yablonsky deftly alert to virtually every aspect of Shostakovich's varied expressive palette. The sound is vivid and John Riley's notes are informative. Recommended.

Copyright © 2004, Robert Cummings