Here’s one that passed me by on its first release.
We’re not exactly short of Romeo highlights discs, but this is
as good as any I’ve heard. Of course, the ballet is one of Prokofiev’s
finest inspirations, and fits very neatly onto two discs, so a strong
case can be made (and often is by critics), that the whole ballet makes
better sense as a ‘listen’. This is certainly the way I’ve always encountered
this score, and compilers of highlight discs have the unenviable job
of deciding what to leave out.
A pretty good job has been made, in this case, of finding
a way to give us all the best bits whilst following the gripping narrative
of the story. Some rivals (notably Abbado on DG, and Dutoit on Decca),
offer quite a bit more music (up to 20 minutes more, in fact), but no-one
is seriously likely to complain here, given the quality of playing on
offer. Even though you know what’s missing, this abridgement works logically,
and is very enjoyable on its own terms.
My benchmark recording of the complete work has always
been Lorin Maazel’s bitingly dramatic Decca version, with his Cleveland
Orchestra absolutely at their peak in 1979. The sound is still demonstration
quality, with a huge range, superb balance and refinement of detail
that are typical top-drawer Decca. This version is now on a mid-price
Decca Double, so is very tempting. Also cheap is André Previn’s
more relaxed, warmly lyrical account with the LSO (on an EMI Double
forte). In many ways, this Salonen disc combines the two approaches
very well, so as a cheap, all-round highlights recommendation, it will
be very hard to beat.
Maybe the Berlin Phil. were breathing a sigh of relief
after their Karajan domination, but whatever the case, the young turk
Salonen’s no-nonsense, mercurial way with the score gets them responding
with razor-sharp dynamism – none of the Karajan ‘soup’ here! There is
an urgency about the performance that is riveting, and one can imagine
the conductor (at that time not yet 28) determined to rid the orchestra
of their inherited ‘baggage’. Opening with The Prince’s Decree
(as do a number of others), Salonen sets the tone, with a brooding intensity
that builds to the huge discords and leaves a feeling of menace hovering.
The Interlude that follows shows the Berlin brass off to its
impressive best (slightly better tuning than Maazel here, though his
rhythm is even tighter). The fleet-footed strings are a joy in Juliet,
the Young Girl, and the famous Dance of the Knights has an
ominous, heavy tread that is only matched by Previn; this marginally
slower tempo, I’m convinced, suits this section better than some of
the breakneck speeds we often hear. The Farewell before the Parting
again shows the wonderful, silvery string tone of this great orchestra
at its best, and the final, moving Death of Juliet seems to me
to prove Salonen is not all heartless, flashy technique.
A real winner, then, with a brief but very readable
note by Philip Ramey, and a detailed cue-by-cue synopsis. Recorded sound
is full and rich, and if the selection includes all the numbers you
want, don’t hesitate.