> PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet (exc) Salonen[]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (1936) (excerpts)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Recorded at the Philharmonie, Berlin, October 1986 DDD


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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.

Tony Haywood


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