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Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet / Gergiev, London SO

Prokofiev / Lso / Gergiev
Release Date: 01/12/2010 
Label:  Lso Live   Catalog #: 682  
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Valery Gergiev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet Valery Gergiev, cond; London SO LSO 0682 (SACD: 138:58) Live: London 11/2008

Considering its mastery and importance, currently available CD recordings of the complete ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are surprisingly scarce, though there are about a dozen DVDs (one of which is conducted by Gergiev). Gergiev recorded the score in 1990 for Philips with the Kirov Theater Orchestra (reviewed by Peter J. Rabinowitz in Read more Fanfare 15:3 and 25:1). When it comes to the music of this composer, according to annotator David Nice, “in sheer statistical terms, [Gergiev] has probably covered more ground than any of his predecessors.” This new two-disc set from LSO Live, therefore, is authoritative at the very least.

Prokofiev’s seemingly effortless lyrical invention is given full rein in act I; at the same time, the composer’s rhythmic energy as the street scene escalates into the quarrel is also exploited, making for a very dramatic reading. Where the first half of the act is mostly aggressive, the second half is more celebratory, as the ball becomes the focus of the action; Gergiev handles the shift in emphasis from masculine to feminine with grace, humor, and finally, swooning, swelling passion (in The Balcony Scene, the chamber organ is omitted, though the program notes refer to it; a string choir is heard in its place).

Act II is where the corps de ballet gets a chance to show off, and that goes for the orchestra too: Gergiev’s sprightly tempos and Prokofiev’s brilliant orchestration make for a tour de force of dance forms, and the sound production assists with clarity and impactful low end. The comic relief provided by the Nurse (No. 26) is pure Shakespeare, and yet Gergiev’s treatment is not without a certain pathos as well. Juliet’s appearance as a secret bride (No. 29) is simply breathtaking. The drama returns with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. The sudden transition and the brusque finality of the music as Tybalt falls and is borne away is as convincingly performed as the lighter fare in the act.

The muted beauty of much of the music in act III is handled with delicacy and playing of classical refinement (No. 40, The Nurse) as well as passion (No. 39, The Last Farewell). The sepulchral quality of the scenes that accompany Juliet’s feigned death are yet another stylistic variation. That this less emphatic music is just as effective as the bravura episodes is tribute to the success of Gergiev’s interpretation. The eerie quality at the end of act III continues into the Epilogue, where it gives way to passionate expressions of sorrow; the music reaches its poignant conclusion, bringing down the curtain on a superlative performance.

The characteristically dry acoustic of the Barbican doesn’t interfere with the sumptuousness of Prokofiev’s orchestration; that same dryness aids the more acerbic nature of some of the scoring as well as providing clarity to the instrumental detailing; there is also no lack of atmosphere and depth in the sound. Altogether, this is a very effective production.

This splendid ballet has been well served on compact disc: Decca’s inaugural recording in Cleveland with then-new music director Lorin Maazel is still available as a Double Decca; Previn’s contemporaneous LSO recording on EMI is now in the Gemini budget series. In 1987, DG released a recording of the score with the BSO under conductor Seiji Ozawa, who produced one of their most successful collaborations (it’s also still available). The Ozawa has been my first choice, but it is now joined by this superb new release from LSO Live, which is destined for my Want List.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

Valery Gergiev's previous recording of this work suffered from dull sonics and less than stellar playing from the Kirov orchestra. These two defects have been remedied in this remake, which has plenty of power and excitement thanks to the LSO brass, and very good live SACD sonics (perhaps a touch dry, but no big deal). I used to think that this music was best experienced complete, but now I'm not so sure. This is a very long ballet (about two hours and 20 minutes) and there's a lot of repetition. In the last two acts you begin to notice how much the basic themes depend on simple rising and falling scales.

Still, Gergiev knows how to keep the music moving. Juliet's tunes are appropriately skittish, then wistful. The party music really swings, the sword fights are fierce, and the street scenes have plenty of color. The Balcony Scene has the right romantic atmosphere (notwithstanding its silly waltz variation that Prokofiev wisely cut for the suite), and the tragic ending has plenty of passionate feeling. Only the first Dance with Mandolins sounds excessively sluggish and clunky, but then this surely was intentional (God knows why). In short, this is a very fine performance, perhaps not quite as energetic or as well played as Ozawa/Boston, but much better recorded. You won't be disappointed.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 by Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Valery Gergiev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935-1936; Paris, France 

Featured Sound Samples

Romeo and Juliet: No 6: The Fight
No 19: Balcony Scene
No 39: The Last Farewell
No 53: Death of Juliet

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