Tchaikovsky Hamlet (incidental music)

Two Shakespearean fantasy overtures – but, excitingly, not as we know them

Author: 
Edward Seckerson
Tchaikovsky Hamlet (incidental music)

TCHAIKOVSKY Hamlet; Romeo and Juliet – Jurowski

  • Hamlet, Overture
  • Hamlet, Mélodrame (Act 1 Scene 1)
  • Hamlet, ~, Fanfare (Act 1 Scene 4)
  • Hamlet, ~, Mélodrame (Act 1 Scene 4)
  • Hamlet, Mélodrame (Act 1 Scene 5)
  • Hamlet, Entr'acte (Act 2)
  • Hamlet, Fanfare (Act 2 Scene 2)
  • Hamlet, Entr'acte (Act 3)
  • Hamlet, ~, Mélodrame (Act 3 Scene 2)
  • Hamlet, Entr'acte: Elegy (Act 4)
  • Hamlet, Scène d'Ophélie: Mad Scene (Act 4 Scene 5)
  • Hamlet, Second Scène d'Ophélie (Act 4 Scene 5)
  • Hamlet, Entr'acte (Act 5)
  • Hamlet, Chant du Fossoyeur (Act 5 Scene 1)
  • Hamlet, Fanfare (Act 5 Scene 2)
  • Hamlet, Marche Finale (Act 5 Scene 2)
  • Romeo and Juliet

At first glance this might look like the traditional pairing of Tchaikovsky’s two fantasy overtures – but you might have known that Vladimir Jurowski was likely to be more inquisitive than that. In 1891 a complete stage performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet took place in St Petersburg with music by Tchaikovsky. His fantasy overture, written for a charity event three years earlier, was heard again, this time filleted to roughly half its original length and reduced in scoring to the requirements of a theatre orchestra. The results are fascinating, not least for the ingenuity of Tchaikovsky’s cut-and-paste job, jump-cutting now with renewed urgency. Of course, one misses the symphonic weight of the original, the awesome apparition of Hamlet’s father’s ghost looming from the introduction in a welter of heavy brass. The effect is more muted here, the scale diminished so as not to pre-empt that moment in the actual drama.

But Ophelia is more than ever at the heart of the piece, her plaintive oboe melody very much dominating this version and exquisitely played – as is everything – by the Russian National Orchestra, whose refinement has opened a new chapter in Russian orchestral playing. Ophelia’s first entrance, incidentally, is none other than the graceful “Alla tedesca” second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, the Polish. How’s that for recycling? And there’s more with the Prelude to Act 4 scene 1, a poignant string elegy turned on wistful arabesques. That is one of the more substantial of the 16 clips and touchingly foreshadows Ophelia’s tragedy. She – the lovely Tatiana Monogarova – has a two-part Mad Scene or “melodrama” where the spoken lines lend a stark reality to her delusions. Speaking of which, it’s unsettling how much the Gravedigger’s Song reminds me of “Deck the Halls”.

Those who know the original 1869 version of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture will be aware that it’s another example of how much more interesting, though not necessarily better, a composer’s first thoughts can be. I personally love the gently pious characterisation of Friar Lawrence in this more protracted introduction; I love, too, the earlier premonition of the great love theme and the way Tchaikovsky quite literally tosses it about in the more radical and certainly more violent development of the fight music. All gone in the revision. Jurowski savours the differences and makes capital of the anomalies. Very exciting.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017