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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet (1935-36): excerpts from Suites No.1 (Op. 64a), No. 2 (Op. 64b) and No. 3 (Op.101): (Montagues and Capulets (Op.64b, No. 1) [5:31]; Juliet the Young Girl (Op. 64b, No. 2) [3:52]; Folk Dance (Op. 64a, No 1) [4:16]; Scene (Op. 64a, No. 2) [1:31]; Madrigal (Op. 64a, No. 3) [3:35]; Minuet (Op. 64a, No. 4) [3:04]; Masks (Op. 64a, No. 5) [1:55]; Romeo and Juliet (Op. 64a, No. 6) [7:41]; Tybalt’s Death (Op. 64a, No. 7) [4:35]; Friar Laurence (Op. 64b, No. 3) [2:40]; Dance (Op. 64b, No. 4) [1:57]; Romeo and Juliet before Parting (Op. 64b, No. 5) [9:14]; Dance of the Girls from The Antilles (The Girls with Lilies) (Op. 64b, No. 6) [2:12]; Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb (Op. 64b, No. 7) [7:01]; Death of Juliet (Op. 101, No.6) [4:18])
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, January, February 1993. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ENTRÉE 00289 477 5011 [63:22]

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When this disc was first issued I didn’t acquire it, though I seem to recall it was well received by the critics. This was because I already possessed the very different, but equally excellent, recordings of the complete ballet by Lorin Maazel and André Previn. Sufficient unto the day, I thought. However, in reality I can never have too much of this marvellous score, which I consider to be one of the very greatest of all ballets, so I jumped at the opportunity to review the disc on its reissue. Now I see what I’ve been missing.

From the very outset it’s clear this recording is rather special. At the beginning of ‘Montagues and Capulets’ there’s a louring menace in the tiered brass chords. But immediately afterwards, the velvety, hushed strings have a superfine quality. All this presages superb orchestral playing throughout the disc. The movement continues with what in the full score is the ‘Knight’s Dance.’ This lumbering music is well done and the recording of the bass drum is especially telling. Later on the flute and string variant is supremely delicate.

There’s more magnificent playing in ‘Juliet the Young Girl’, where the music skips along, combining youthful enthusiasm and grace. Later, the longings and awakenings of an adolescent girl are gently and sensitively done. All in all this is a marvellous portrait.

‘Madrigal’ is another treat. The playing is gorgeously atmospheric and the DG engineers have used the bloom of the hall’s acoustic to perfection. I greatly admired the delicacy of the playing here; this is a world-class orchestra on top form and very responsive to the conductor.

At the start of the balcony scene (track 8), the hushed orchestral sounds at the start evoke almost tangibly the warm scented evening air of a Mediterranean garden. When the big, romantic melody comes in it’s sung gloriously by the RCO strings and the subsequent brass contributions are golden in tone. Every detail in this movement is perfect from first bar to last.

However, reality then sets in with a vengeance in ‘The Death of Tybalt’. Here, I think Chung is perhaps marginally less successful. The fight is thrilling, if it doesn’t quite match the visceral cut and thrust of Ančerl (can anyone?) but I didn’t feel he quite equals the colossal power that the great Czech conductor brings to the funeral cortčge. review. However, it’s still a tremendously good account of this exciting movement and the superb recording reports many strands of the texture. Not only is the sound better than on the very good Ančerl disc, as one might expect given the age gap between the recordings, but also I think the quality of the RCO playing surpasses even the superlative Czech Philharmonic.

There’s an outstandingly warm bassoon solo in ‘Friar Laurence.’ In fact this whole movement is excellent, presenting an affectionate portrait of the cleric but giving him the appropriate air of gentle gravitas too. Chung brings infinite tenderness and gentleness to ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ but then as the music grows more ardent he responds to that too. As the emotional temperature rises he doesn’t overplay his hand, rather he allows the music to unfold so that when the true climax arrives at 5:09 the moment is all the more moving for the previous restraint shown. From 6:34 onwards the gentle moonlit parting is played with great delicacy and refinement, producing an effect that’s quite magical.

And then comes the tragic dénouement and Chung and his players rise to the occasion. The portrayal of ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ begins, as it should, with tremendous intensity and just grows from there, though excess is avoided, thank goodness. The moment of Romeo’s passing is superbly conveyed, thanks in no small measure to the mellow acoustic of the Concertgebouw and the skill of the engineers. The ‘Death of Juliet’ movement is just so sad! Here, as elsewhere, the perfectly judged balance of the orchestra works to wonderful effect. For instance, around 1:22 the little clarinet phrases that counterbalance the violins are beautifully integrated.

This CD contains some of the finest orchestral playing it’s ever been my pleasure to hear. Chung has the measure of the score and communicates it expertly. I don’t think he quite equals Ančerl at moments of sheer excitement and emotional intensity but elsewhere he’s exceptionally sensitive and subtle.

The disc contains all of the first two suites, with Suite No. 1 heard in order on tracks three to nine. Only one number from the third suite is given, but that’s in its correct place in the drama. I wish Chung had given us more – if not all – of the Third suite but perhaps the selection was determined by the slightly less generous CD playing times that were the norm in the early 1990s. Above all I regret that DG didn’t get him to record the whole ballet. On this showing, such a recording would have been quite something.

On balance I retain - just - my longstanding loyalty to Ančerl’s outstanding recording but this DG disc offers a more generous selection of music from the ballet and even if you already have other recordings of Prokofiev’s masterpiece in your collection I’d urge you to buy this disc. If you haven’t got a recording of Romeo and Juliet and don’t want the full ballet then I can’t think of a better way of encountering this great score. Superlative playing, sympathetic conducting, fine engineering, marvellous music and a bargain price; what more can one ask?

John Quinn


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