Russian National Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Tatiana Monogarova soprano (Tracks 12 & 13)
Maxim Mikhailov bass (Track 15)
Tchaikovsky: Hamlet Op.67a 'Overture & Incidental Music'
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet 'Fantasy Overture'
(original 1869 version)
Recorded at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow: 25-27th September 2007
Executive Producer: Job Maarse
Recording Producer: Carl Schuurbiers
Balance Engineer: Erdo Groot
Editor: Carl Schuurbiers
Photography: Roman Gontcharov
There were not many composers of standing, who worked equally hard on absolute and programme music. And of those composers, only few were destined to achieve extraordinary results in both genres. One of them was Peter Tchaikovsky. Probably his passion for reading stood him in good stead when inspired by high literature; after all, Tchaikovsky considered "reading as ranking amongst the greatest moments of happiness". In his programmatic works, he did not try to elaborate on a literary programme or the detailed portrayal of a plot; rather, he was attracted to the psyche of the figures depicted, to the development of their characters, or, for instance, to the emotional impasses and whirlpools, into which they manoeuvred themselves, or into which they were drawn. Anyhow, Tchaikovsky used three plays by the great Shakespeare on which to model various works: The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. He turned them into a symphonic fantasy (The Tempest, Op. 18), two fantasy-overtures (Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, Op. 67) and incidental music(Hamlet, Op. 67 bis).Just like many other composers, Tchaikovsky was inspired by a disastrous love, which led him to ruin. It is interesting to note that the young composer was truly encouraged to compose by Mili Balakirev. Balakirev suggested that Tchaikovsky use Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a model for his following work - he probably knew about Tchaikovsky's unrequited love for the Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt and assumed that the story of the famous Shakespearian lovers would encourage him to get down to the composition.
Tchaikovsky began work without any huge enthusiasm, following Balakirev's detailed composition instructions: "Begin with the music portraying Friar Lawrence, then interrupt it with the quarrel between the sparring families, and then depict the young lovers." In November 1869, Tchaikovsky completed the first version (which is the one recorded here) of his Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet. At Balakirev's advice, two further versions then followed (1870, 1880); and it was to take over another ten years, until Tchaikovsky was completely satisfied with his work. When planning the music, Tchaikovsky concentrated on the three main elements of the drama, which he translated into sonata movement form.
Thanks to its chorale-like character, the lengthy Adagio introduction conveys a sense of devout spirituality, as portrayed by the figure of Friar Lawrence. This is followed in the Allegro giusto by a brutal episode, with the rhythmical-energetic main theme symbolizing the battle between the Montagues and the Capulets (percussion!). Finally, the second theme enters, a lyrically flowing wood-wind melody, representing the love between Romeo and Juliet. During the 1870 première in Moscow, the fantasy-overture was given a cool reception, with the same fate befalling the music during its first performances in the West. But Tchaikovsky lived to see opinions change, and nowadays Romeo and Juliet is ranked among the most famous musical settings of Shakespearian plays in the entire orchestral repertoire.
However, one cannot necessarily say the same of his stage music written to the Shakespeare tragedy Hamlet. Of course, this is due primarily to its belonging to the stage music genre, which nowadays fulfils only a secondary, if not totally subordinate role in the theatre. In 1888, a French-speaking theatre group led by the actor Lucien Guitry gave a guest performance in St. Petersburg. Guitry wanted to raise some money performing some scenes from Hamlet for a charity event, so he called on Tchaikovsky to commission a musical introduction. Thus Tchaikovsky wrote his third programmatic work to a Shakespeare text while working on the instrumentation of the Symphony No. 5: his Fantasy-Overture Hamlet, Op. 67, which he dedicated to Edvard Grieg. Here, too - as was the case with Romeo and Juliet - he designed a musical character portrait, rather than keeping to a narration of the action. Here too, he subjected the sonata form to a free new formulation.
In 1891, a performance of the complete Hamlet took place in Petersburg, for which Tchaikovsky provided the incidental music. He clearly reduced the Fantasy-Overture on this occasion, and created a tailor-made version for small orchestra. (Orchestras performing in theatres were not of symphonic strength.) Altogether, this contained four pieces of music as interludes, five very short fanfares, a finale-march, four melodramas and three vocal pieces. The melodramas for the appearance of the ghost (scenes 1 and 4) are not necessarily of the same quality of comparable settings, such as in Der Freischütz (wolf ravine scene), however, they significantly increase the expression of the text which they accompany. The rather robust song of the grave-diggers in the 5th act and the two dramatic scenes with Ophelia in the 4th act - here, Ophelia lapses into madness - are sung in French.
By the way, Tchaikovsky did not write all these pieces afresh: some of the musical material he borrowed from earlier works. It is astonishing how the borrowed themes from, for instance, his Symphony No. 3 (interlude for the 2nd act) and the Elegy "A Grateful Greeting" (interlude for the 4th act) fit in seamlessly with the musical design. An unquestionable sign of the sheer dramatic and emotional quality of Tchaikovsky's music. The highlights certainly include the funeral march, which can be heard in the interlude for the 5th act and in the 1st scene, and provides a musical portrayal of Ophelia's burial procession.