This disc is the first ever to offer the complete Shostakovich score to the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev film Hamlet. Actually, it contains a bit more: track 6 for example, "The Ball," presents music not heard in the film, music the composer wrote apparently because he wanted to reach a logical ending, even if in the film the music just fades away. There are 23 numbers in all, with a total timing of over 62 minutes. Stylistically, the music is related to the Eleventh (1957) and Thirteenth (1962) symphonies, but is of course less developmental and more programmatic, coming across as a sort of tone poem made up of many short movements.
While there is a fair amount of bright, even happy music in the score, the mood is generally dark and intense, appropriately so considering the subject matter: Shakespeare's Hamlet is, after all, hardly a comedy. The music doesn't skim surfaces, either -- it haunts, it sasses, it laughs, and it plumbs the depths. The slashing opening chords of the Overture (No.1) immediately alert the listener to the dark, sinister world of Hamlet. Nos. 18 through 21 form a quartet chronicling the madness, death, and burial of Ophelia, and while the music is mostly dark and mournful, the harpsichord seems to search here, then to mock there, then to vacillate. On the brighter side, the energy and thematic grace of No. 4, "The Palace Ball," with its Tchaikovskian middle section, is utterly infectious, as are No. 9, "Palace Music," and No. 10, "Arrival of the Players," the latter for its rhythms, growling brass, and glitzy percussive effects.
The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under the incisive Dmitry Yablonsky, perform admirably: strings are eerie and atmospheric, with deliciously sinister pizzicato passages; the brass handle the several fanfares brilliantly, sometimes with a hint of menace, even though some cues last but 14 seconds; winds can chill, like the threatening flute in No. 17, "The Flutes Play"; and percussion resound with venom, as in Nos. 10 and 16 ("Poisoning Scene"). The sound throughout is vivid and state of the art.