Wednesday, March 9, 2011

LA Phil Live in HD: Balakirev's Ice-Cream and Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasia on Hamlet

Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasia on Hamlet is a work that many have unfairly dismissed. "Hamlet pays Ophelia compliments," wrote Russian composer Mily Balakirev in the margin of his own copy of the score, "then hands her an ice-cream."

Gustavo Dudamel will conduct this infrequently played work, along with the two Tchaikovsky other overtures inspired by in the next LA Phil Live in HD transmission into movie theaters on Sunday March 13. But with a map that charts the trajectory of this restless Overture-Fantasia, you will soon hear that there is more to this work than compliments and ice-cream:

This is a work of contradictions. It has no separate development section but is prefaced by an intensely developmental introduction that spans almost five minutes. The music opens with a presentation, then three developmental restatements of a passage often called the Fate theme, separated by parallel sequential interludes:

[0:05]: Fate Theme
[0:40]: Fate Theme with tail motive developed and extended
[1:18]: Interlude I
[1:43]: Fate Theme further developed
[2:17]: Interlude II
[2:43]: Fate Theme developed with figuration from the interlude

[3:27]: A memorable passage in which the hour of midnight is symbolically tolled. Twelve times in regular succession the stopped horns toll an octave G.

[4:17-4:51] After a loud articulation on the tam-tam, the fate motive is played by trombones with a rich background of triplets. Many writers have heard this passage as representing the interaction of Hamlet and the ghost of his father. The passage dissolves in triplets and fragmented gestures and ends in total silence.

[4:52] The exposition begins with a theme in F minor with a rising contour that contradicts the primary shape of the fate theme. The theme is presented again in sequence [5:05].

[5:24] The transition opens in the bassoons and is further articulated by brass and cymbals. The music becomes obsessed with chromatic melodic motion until it blurs and dissolves into another separative silence.

[6:49] Solo oboe articulates the second theme group, which begins in the key of B Minor; a tritone away from the F minor in which the first theme group is set. This is the passage that most writers have associated with Ophelia. Far from paying her "compliments," this is music that shows her character to be isolated and set apart.

[0:00] This second part of the YouTube video opens with the famous "ice-cream" passage to which Balakirev referred. In a style that Tchaikovsky mastered, D major is articulated without ever being present in root position, largely through the insistence of a ringing octave A that saturates the entire passage.

[0:28] The tune shifts to the strings and [0:56] a developmental passage marked "Animando poco a poco" shifts the music around corners.

[1:17] On a G pedal we hear a grotesque march that intensifies until a retransition is made from the opening tune of the first theme group.

[1:50] The recapitulation begins as an intensification. The transition [2:20] jumps immediately to the music of chromatic blur and bypasses the passage played by bassoons in the exposition.

[3:07] There is no pause. The Ophelia music is heard in B-flat minor in a clever texture into which several developmental ideas are woven. Even when Ophelia interacts with other ideas her music remains remote and unresolved.

[4:39] A grand pause is heard just before this presentation of the lyrical music that continues the second theme group; this time in D-flat major.

[5:42] The texture breaks suddenly and the music intensifies until [6:17] the fate theme from the introduction is played several times by the trombones.

[6:38]Parallelism with the exposition is re-established as the grotesque march is heard over a C pedal. This passage is sequenced higher in chromatic motion and leads to a fanfare based on the Fate theme.

[7:25] The coda, marked Poco piĆ¹ animato, begins with a development from the rising motive of the first theme group. There is a fermata on a fffff chord scored low in winds…certainly one of the most intense chords in all of Tchaikovsky's music.

[7:52] The interlude from the introduction appears again and a falling cello line [8:15] marks the closing gestures of the work. Muted cellos sing [8:37] the opening fate theme in a passage that sounds like a funeral march in F minor.

The process of contemplating even the simplest description of the events in this piece allows one sympathy for those who got lost along the way. The overture-fantasia is filled with tensions, broken sequences, and lyrical episodes that float outside norms. Balakirev's ice-cream fantasy is funny, but its impatience shows us how easy it is to give up on complexities worth hearing.

This is not music that panders to the masses. I will be happy to hear what Dudamel does with this work of contradictions on Sunday...

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