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Berlioz: Romeo & Juliette

Berlioz / Paita
Release Date: 03/11/2014 
Label:  Carlos Paita Edition   Catalog #: 801   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Carlos Païta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Prague Festival OrchestraPrague Festival Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Roméo et Juliette Carlos Païta, cond; unidentified soloists; Prague Festival Ch & O LODIA 801 (96:55) Live: Prague 1978

This was a somewhat frustrating performance to review due to the lack of information on the CD insert or booklet. Nowhere is there an exact date or names of any of the singers, and after extensive research online I could not find any information in English or translatable into English. (I even sent an email to Maestro Païta asking who the singers were, and Read more received an answer back from Paul Blanchard of Smart Music, the distributor, stating that “after inquiry, Maestro Païta can’t remember the names, as it is an old recording and nothing is mentioned on the tape.”) While it is true that this is essentially Païta’s show, and his conducting is unbelievably great, it’s a shame because the singers are equally good. The mezzo has a wonderful burnished sound, the tenor sings with a firm, bright tone and superb French diction, and the bass singing Friar Laurence has an incredibly rich, French-sounding voice (complete with a slight flicker-vibrato) and brings his part to life better than anyone I’ve ever heard sing this part.

In terms of orchestral timbre, Païta alternates between moments of great clarity and moments of opaqueness, thus creating a sound that lies somewhere between Arturo Toscanini and Seiji Ozawa. He tears into the opening fugue like a man possessed, and essentially keeps up this pace until he reaches the Love Scene, which is taken in a more relaxed manner but still retains a forward momentum. In this section, too, Païta employs a number of rubato effects that I’ve never heard anyone one else attempt or pull off in quite the same way. For a live concert from 1978, the sonics are also astounding: It sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday. The strings sing sweetly but also have “bite” when they need to, the winds are sharply etched, and the performance as a whole is continually informed by a subtle nervous tension that never lets up. His “Queen Mab Scherzo” has the same magical lightness and tension as Toscanini’s 1947 complete performance (which was better than either the 1942 Philadelphia Orchestra version or the later NBC Symphony studio recording), with wind and string balances absolutely perfect and the rhythm buoyantly syncopated. In addition, the high horn passages are flawlessly played and the wood tone of the winds clearly etched. His phrasing in the funeral convoy music is also astounding, conveying great feeling and perfectly adjusting the balances between orchestra and chorus, as Colin Davis did on his Philips recording of this work.

I was, however, most interested to hear the Friar Laurence scene. This is the one section of this “dramatic symphony” that always comes under criticism, many listeners feeling that it lacks the originality of form or harmony of the rest of the work. Païta pulls it off extremely well, in part because he has a magnificent bass singing quite dramatically but mostly because he conducts the music briskly and accents it strongly.

Whereas I found that Païta’s 1977 performance of the Mahler First Symphony had “down” moments where his emotional connection to the music became somewhat detached, I had no such misgivings about this Roméo. Everything here is perfectly judged and carried off with great sensitivity as well as feeling. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest releases of the year.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Carlos Païta
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Prague Festival Orchestra,  Prague Festival Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1839; France 

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