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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet. Scenes from the Ballet, Op. 64 (1935-36) [46’51"]: Montagues and Capulets (Suite 2/1) [5.45"]; Juliet, the Little Girl (Suite 2/2) [3’59"]; Masks (Suite 1/5) [1’49"]; Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene: suite 1/6) [6’32"]; Friar Laurence (Suite 2/3) [2’50"]; Dance of the Antilles’ Girls (Suite 2/6) [2’28"]; Dance (Suite 2/4) [1’58"]; Death of Tybalt (Suite 1/7) [4’16"]; Romeo and Juliet Before Parting (Suite 2/5) [9’15"]; Romeo at Juliet’s Grave (Suite 2/7) [7’29"]
Peter and the Wolf: Tale for Children with Narrator and Orchestra, Op. 67 (1936)* [23’30"]
*Eric Shilling (narrator)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl

Rec. Rudolfinum Studio, Prague, 24-28 August 1959; *February 1963 ADD
Karel Ančerl Gold Edition Vol. 16

SUPRAPHON SU 3676-2 011 [70’33"]

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In a recent review of another release in this same series my colleague Christopher Howell rather provocatively posed the question whether Karel Ančerl was “quite the ‘great’ conductor it is sometimes claimed today". He went on to give what he stressed was a personal definition of greatness in a conductor as "an ability to involve the orchestra and listener in a very special and intense spiritual experience." Christopher invoked a number of sacred choral works, none of which Ančerl recorded, so far as I know. However, it seems to me that greatness can and should be defined more widely than by reference just to such pillars of high Western art as the St Matthew Passion. Indeed in the course of his characteristically well-informed and perceptive review I think Christopher implicitly answered his own question by drawing attention to the many fine qualities in Ančerl’s musicianship that were displayed in that particular disc.

This present Prokofiev CD seems to me to satisfy Christopher’s definition for in the excerpts from Romeo and Juliet I believe that we do indeed encounter "a very special and intense spiritual experience", albeit a secular one. I recall first hearing these extracts many years ago on an LP belonging to my father and it’s been a joy to reacquaint myself with them now in greatly enhanced sound.

By the time that this recording was set down Ančerl had been at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic for some nine years. The understanding and empathy between conductor and players is everywhere evident as the CPO turns in performances of great power and sensitivity.

From the very start of ‘Montagues and Capulets’ Ančerl generates enormous tension. When the music moves on into the lumbering dance there’s just the right amount of weight from the strings though later on the strings and solo flute play with great delicacy. I had the opportunity of comparing this performance with a 1961 reading, issued by Tahra, in which Ančerl conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and which I reviewed enthusiastically a while ago. This movement is one of four that is common to both recordings. Well though the German orchestra plays, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Czech playing is better. A comparison between the two bands in this movement alone shows how integrated and powerful yet refined the CPO was under Ančerl.

Tahra Ancerl review is

Some of the other movements on offer here are smaller scale dances but Ančerl lavishes the same care and attention on them. The portrait of ‘Juliet the young girl’ is etched in marvellously. The music skips along impetuously and infectiously, catching the mood of a young, innocent girl to perfection. The slightly cheeky ‘Masks’ is extremely well done. Prokofiev’s presentation of ‘Friar Laurence’ is also done expertly. At the start Prokofiev portrays the Friar just as a kindly man but before long a much deeper vein of melancholy is revealed and here the CPO strings are gorgeous.

In the aforementioned review Christopher Howell referred very rightly to Ančerl’s rhythmic acuity. This is on display consistently throughout this disc, whether the music is slow or fast. The brief ‘Dance’ (track 7) is an excellent example of the conductor’s expert way of pointing rhythms.

The last three tracks confront us with key points in Shakespeare’s and Prokofiev’s drama. ‘The Death of Tybalt’, with which Act 2 of the complete ballet ends is quite stunning here, a real tour-de-force. At the very start there is wonderful articulation in the playing and the fight between Romeo and Tybalt is breathtaking. The rushing strings in that passage (from 1’14", track 8) are absolutely unanimous and vital. By contrast, on the Tahra CD the Gewandhaus strings are neither as precise nor as weighty. The CPO also has a decided edge with their account of the concluding cortège for Tybalt. This is overwhelming in its intensity, crowned by a piercing first trumpet that sounds almost like a cornet. Some listeners may not like that sound but I found it riveting.

Moving on, Ančerl gives us ’Romeo and Juliet before Parting’, a beautifully bittersweet movement in which his heartfelt interpretation is aided by superbly sensitive and rich playing. The movement has a terrific ambience, not least because Prokofiev’s unique orchestral sonorities are so expertly realised.

And then we come to the crux of the whole story, ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Grave’. This makes a searing conclusion to Ančerl’s selection. The listener can identify completely with Romeo’s despair and anguish at the start. There’s huge power in the playing, though the drama is never overcooked. Prokofiev makes strenuous demands on the violins, taking them up into the stratosphere, but the CPO players are fearless and their intonation is flawless. After the emotions have been drained the hushed, tragic ending is overwhelmingly poignant and offers further testimony of the CPO’s peerless playing for their chief.

This is a classic recording and its reappearance in splendidly re-mastered sound is greatly to be welcomed. I admire very much the very different accounts of the complete ballet score by Previn (with the LSO for EMI) and by Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca). However, this wonderful set of extracts makes me regret enormously that Ancerl never recorded the full score. However, this must be one of the very finest sets of extracts ever committed to disc and collectors should hasten to snap it up.

I’m afraid I can’t get terribly worked up about Peter and the Wolf. It’s very well played by Ančerl and his orchestra. Unfortunately, Eric Shilling narrates in a precise, rather studied manner that I find stilted and a bit patronizing. He also sounds to have been recorded in a separate, very resonant acoustic. I wish Supraphon had chosen a different coupling.

As it is, it’s for the Romeo and Juliet that I unhesitatingly recommend this CD. It’s great music recorded by a conductor whose greatness is fully demonstrated in such a work. With outstandingly responsive orchestral playing to savour as well this is a disc to treasure.

John Quinn

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Montagues and Capulets
Juliet, the Little Girl
Balcony Scene
Friar Laurence
Dance of the Antilles' Girls
Death of Tybalt
Romeo and Juliet Before Parting
Romeo at Juliet's Grave
Peter and the Wolf Op.67

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