Roméo et Juliette - Symphonie Dramatique, Op. 17 (1838) [96:19]
Olga Borodina (mezzo); Thomas Moser (tenor); Alastair Miles (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Colin Davis
rec. June 1993, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna. DDD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802046 [53:12 + 43:07]

This is the second of Sir Colin Davis’s three recordings of Roméo et Juliette. As with his first recording - from 1968 - it was made for Philips. His third recording, also excellent, was made in concert with the LSO in 2000 and issued on the orchestra’s own label (review). I’m not sure that the first Philips recording is currently available separately, though it may be accessible as part of a boxed set. Though I have virtually all Davis’s Berlioz recordings in my collection this present one has eluded me until now; I’m delighted that Newton Classics has licensed it for reissue. The overwhelming majority of Sir Colin’s Berlioz discs, including both of his other two recordings of this work, have been made with the LSO. Only rarely has he recorded Berlioz outside London. Indeed, I can think of only a handful of studio-made recordings without the LSO - there are some live recordings with other orchestras - one of which was a very fine Symphonie Fantastique with the Royal Concertgebouw. This is the other one and it’s also first class.

The first thing that catches the attention is the sheer quality of the recorded sound. The Philips engineers have reported the performance in superb sound that is both rich and clear and they have used the space and natural resonance of the hall with great intelligence. The orchestra’s sound ravishes the ear constantly – and that’s a tribute to the audio team as well as to the players – and even the most complex ensembles are beautifully balanced. A prime example of the engineering skill comes in the second movement at ‘Ohé! Capulets bonsoir!’ where we hear an exquisitely soft and rich carpet of string tone. Then the distant guests, wending their way home from the ball, are caught marvellously in the aural perspective. It’s a superbly evocative passage (CD 1, track 8).

You may not be surprised to learn, therefore, that the ‘Scène d’amour’, which follows, is superbly played and engineered. This is, surely, one of the most inspired passages in all Berlioz. I don’t think I’ve heard it done better than it is here. The warm, dark Italian night is magically evoked – you feel you can almost smell the captivating scent of flowers in the nocturnal garden setting. In this section the richness and supple yield of the VPO’s playing is wonderful to hear.

In truth, the orchestra distinguishes itself throughout. Berlioz is not the composer whose name first springs to mind when one thinks of this orchestra and, in fact, I wonder how often they would have tackled this particular score previously. Led by a master conductor of Berlioz’s music they play it with total conviction, whether in the gossamer lightness of the ‘Queen Mab’ Scherzo or in the Introduction, where bustle and agility is followed by dramatic rhetoric.

The Bavarian Radio Choir also excels, especially in the important passages in Part III. The important and delicate semi-chorus work in Part I is also done very well indeed.

With typical disregard for economics, Berlioz uses three soloists but, in a work lasting some ninety minutes, each appears only once. The shortest appearance is by the tenor. Thomas Moser displays lightness and precision in ‘Mab! la messagère’, to which the chorus and orchestra also contribute expertly – there’s some truly elfin delicacy in the orchestral playing in this section. Olga Borodina sings with a rich, full timbre in the Strophes. Some may find her voice a bit too full-toned for this music but she demonstrates finesse yet sings ardently in the passages where that quality is called for. She’s not a Francophone but she’s very convincing in the role and I enjoyed her contribution.

Best of all is Alastair Miles as Friar Laurence. Rightly, he dominates the sixth movement and his ‘Pauvres enfants’ solo is delivered with firm tone and with the right balance struck between dignity and sorrow. He’s also very good at expressing anger at the warring families, whose feud has precipitated the tragedy.

If Miles dominates the closing section vocally, the person who bestrides the whole performance is Sir Colin Davis. His is the dominance of a wise, experienced musician who is totally immersed in the music and who puts all his accumulated knowledge and experience of musical drama, gained over many years in the opera house, at the service of the score. From first note to last his direction seems so right – one just can’t imagine it going any other way. Sir Colin’s conducting is masterful throughout and while I greatly admire his other two recordings of the work I fancy this one is his best.

I’m delighted that Newton Classics have restored this superb recording to the catalogue. It’s unfortunate that there are no texts or translations but there is a useful note by David Cairns, one of the foremost authorities on Berlioz. I have one slight quibble. Although it’s a separate movement, the ‘Queen Mab’ Scherzo is the final element in Part II of the work. It’s a shame, therefore, that one has to change from CD1 to CD2 to hear it when it would have fitted with ease onto CD1, along with the rest of Part II. I suspect the layout of the original Philips CDs has been simply copied here, which is a trifle lazy.

That’s the only – and very mild – caveat, however. Roméo et Juliette is one of Berlioz’s greatest works and if you haven’t got a recording of it in your collection, you really can’t do better than this superbly played, recorded and interpreted version.

John Quinn

If you haven’t got a recording of this Berlioz masterpiece in your collection, you really can’t do better than this.