Notes and Editorial Reviews
MUSIC INSPIRED BY SHAKESPEARE AND HAMLET
Vladimir Ziva, cond; South Jutland SO
DANACORD 682 (70:07)
Symphonic Poem No. 10,
Overture to Hamlet.
At risk of overstating the obvious, it’s Shakespeare and Hamlet that unite this incongruent congress of composers in a program of congruent works. The oddest member of this quintet, at least chronologically and in terms of musical style, is German-born Danish composer Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832), whose Overture to
kicks off the program. Kuhlau was both friend and admirer of Beethoven and did much to promote Beethoven’s music in Denmark. So enamored of Shakespeare was Kuhlau that he wrote a
on the life of the bard based on a four-act play by Norwegian playwright Casper Johannes Boye. It was premiered in Copenhagen in 1826, and it’s the overture to that
that’s heard here. It’s an invigorating piece, much in the mold of Beethoven, condensing into its nine minutes both the tragic and comic elements of Shakespeare’s plays. Kuhlau’s overture has not been recorded often, but a major competitor does exist in a Chandos CD featuring Michael Schønwandt leading the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in an all-Kuhlau program.
The works that follow on the recording are not presented in chronological order of composition. If they were, next up would be the Overture to
by Joseph Joachim (1831–1907), written in 1853 when the young composer/violinist was only 22. It comes at a critical juncture in Joachim’s life, a time during which he’d already begun distancing himself from the New German school of Liszt and was leaning toward the classically oriented overture models of Beethoven’s
. In the same year that Joachim composed his
Overture he would meet Brahms, an encounter that would permanently alter the course of his life. The piece is the first and the earliest in a series of such works Joachim was to write and, as such, it still owes much to Liszt’s Weimar circle, being as much symphonic tone poem as overture. It’s not terribly well represented on disc, this new recording being preferable to both an inferior performance on Naxos by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and a bloated reading on Simax by Mariss Jansons leading the Oslo Philharmonic.
Next up, chronologically, is Liszt’s contribution to the
fest, designated No. 10 in his list of works. Simply titled
, it was completed in 1858, and though technically not his last tone poem—that distinction belongs to No. 13,
From the Cradle to the Grave
, completed in 1882—
is the last to be written of the 12 symphonic poems Liszt produced during his Weimar period.
Liszt’s own writings make clear that he saw
as a different type of work from the overture-poem in which the music programmatically follows the events of the drama. Rather, he described the score as a character study in which the conflict between opposing forces—in this case, Hamlet vs. Ophelia—is explored. This leads to a more classically structured work in which the conflict between characters may be seen as paralleling the key-area conflict worked out in a sonata-allegro form. This is fundamentally different from the concept of a programmatic symphonic poem in which the music tends to proceed episodically based on the sequence of unfolding events in the play. Based solely on numbers of recordings,
does not appear to be Liszt’s most popular symphonic poem;
Les Préludes, Mazeppa
easily eclipse it, but some critics hold
to be the composer’s finest work in the genre.
Not heard is Gianandrea Noseda’s
with the BBC Philharmonia in that conductor’s ongoing Liszt cycle for Chandos, but based on other Noseda CDs I’ve heard—I was thrilled by his Rachmaninoff Second Symphony in
34:1—I’d expect him to give Vladimir Ziva on the current disc a run for his money.
If you thought Tchaikovsky’s
fantasy-overture was next in order of composition, you’d be wrong. The American Edward MacDowell (1860–1908) beat him to it by four years, writing his twinned tone poems,
Hamlet and Ophelia
, while on a visit to London with his wife in 1884. There the couple took in several Shakespeare productions, including
Much Ado about Nothing
. If Shakespeare’s plays were the literary inspiration for MacDowell’s works, Wagner’s operas were their musical influence, or so says program note author Malcolm MacDonald, whose accounts are usually reliable and trustworthy. However, David Hurwitz of ClassicsToday.com, in his review of the only other version of the piece I find listed—a 1999 Naxos recording by the Ulster Orchestra led by Takuo Yuasa—describes the music as “more like faux Mendelssohn with a Liszt spritzer,” and generally doesn’t seem to think highly of the composer, who was run over by a hansom cab. There is indeed, however, a tenuous connection between MacDowell and Liszt. MacDowell studied composition in Frankfurt under Joachim Raff, and Raff, as is now widely known, had a significant hand in helping Liszt orchestrate some of his symphonic poems.
Last but far from least is Tchaikovsky’s
fantasy-overture, written in 1888 and dedicated—does anyone know why?—to Grieg. Other than the fact that the two composers had met in Leipzig earlier that year, on the same occasion, by the way, that Tchaikovsky met Brahms, and that Tchaikovsky thought Grieg “an extraordinarily charming man,” there doesn’t seem to be any concrete reason for the dedication. Perhaps it was out of spite, as Tchaikovsky made no bones of the fact that he considered Brahms a “mediocrity.” I could say something here, but I won’t.
is chronologically concurrent with the composer’s Fifth Symphony, but the Hamlet motif finds its roots a dozen years earlier when Tchaikovsky outlined ideas for the work to his brother Modest. His chance to put some of those ideas to use came in 1888 when actor Lucien Guitry asked the composer to write some incidental music for a planned production of the play. That project fizzled when the play was canceled, but Tchaikovsky decided to complete the overture which is today the piece we know as the
fantasy-overture, op. 67.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Three years later, in 1891, Guitry was back, bugging Tchaikovsky once again to provide incidental music for a staging of the play in which the actor was to give his farewell performance. Tchaikovsky agreed, but a recent downturn in his fortunes sapped him of the will to expend much effort on the venture. For the overture, he revised and shortened the existing fantasy-overture, and for the 16 numbers that comprise the incidental music, he borrowed heavily from
The Snow Maiden
, the Third Symphony, and the
Elegy for Ivan Samarin
. The work entered his catalog as op. 67a, but he was not proud of it and refused permission for it to be used in a later production.
Of Tchaikovsky’s two Shakespeare-based fantasy-overtures,
has never achieved the popularity of
Romeo and Juliet
in its third and final version, completed in 1880. Thirty-odd recordings of the composer’s
may seem like a lot, but that number pales beside the more than 200 listings for
Romeo and Juliet
33:3, I was highly impressed by a new Orfeo recording of
by Andris Nelsons conducting the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Unfortunately, it was coupled with a flawed performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I’ve not heard the even more recent version by the L.A. kid everyone is talking about, Gustavo Dudamel, but Arthur Lintgen reviewed it in 34:6 and found little to like about it.
That being said, this new recording offers more than competitive performances of the well-known Liszt and Tchaikovsky works and excellent performances in the lesser-known Kuhlau, Joachim, and MacDowell numbers. The program is a fascinating one—it always is to hear how several different composers approach the same subject—and all-around superb orchestral playing from the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra and Danacord’s equally superb sound make this a highly desirable and recommendable release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Hamlet Overture, Op. 67 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1888; Russia
Hamlet, S 104 by Franz Liszt
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1858; Weimar, Germany
Hamlet and Ophelia, Op. 22 by Edward MacDowell
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1884-1885; Frankfurt, Germany
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