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Tragic Lovers
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde [17:14]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet [15:59]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy Overture [21:10]
Oregon Symphony/James DePreist
rec. 2008. DDD
DELOS DE3369 [54:22]
Experience Classicsonline

Putting together a disc of popular works from the Romantic repertoire is a risk. Conductor and orchestra have a choice. They can either give us an unusual and original interpretation of each work, or else provide uncontroversial yet brilliant readings. Here, James DePreist and the Oregon Symphony do neither, although they very nearly pull off the latter option.
The first track is the main disappointment. Their Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is played too straight, and the Prelude in particular lacks any real sense of tension or foreboding. The absence of the vocal line in the Liebestod exposes some interesting aspects to Wagner’s orchestration, particularly the parts for horn and harp, but there is no momentum in this performance either, and a halting crescendo fails to lift the final climax off the ground. Both pieces are also marred by an imbalance in the recording, which gives the bass strings too much prominence and results in a fuzzy vibration throughout the disc.
Both orchestra and conductor seem more at home with the Love Scene from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. The playing throbs with emotion, and moves from elated romanticism to more sombre contemplation. Some very fine flute playing and skilful intertwining of the string lines perfectly capture Berlioz’s hallmark moods of joy and melancholy. This performance compares well with Sir Colin Davis’s classic 1993 live recording of the complete Romeo and Juliet with the Vienna Philharmonic on Philips. In that version, the Love Scene is hushed and reverent and sounds more like an overly respectful homage to Berlioz than a scene of youthful love-making. The pace also feels slower - even though both recordings come in at just under 16 minutes - and the sound is thinner, with the added distraction of shifting seats in the orchestra and coughing from the audience.
DePreist and the Oregon Symphony opt for a safe reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet. But unlike the Wagner, this is a much more engaging performance. Rich strings and woodwind create a strong sense of gravitas in the opening section, and there is real drama and percussive dazzle in the ‘sword fight’ music which follows. The only real disappointment is the slowing down of the tempo in the run-up to the famous love theme. This passage should be an impatient bit of foreplay, rather than a desultory fumble. Nevertheless, the love theme itself is beautifully played, and splendidly overblown in its final recapitulation. The second round of sword play also clashes with over-the-top agitation, punctuated by strident brass calls. The final theme - from Tchaikovsky’s discarded first version of the overture - suitably ascends the heights of tragedy on soaring strings until the final timpani roll and biting chords round off this highly enjoyable recording.
John-Pierre Joyce


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