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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Suite from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (1934/35, arr. for viola and piano)
See end of review for track-listing
Matthew Jones (viola), Michael Hampton (piano), #Rivka Golani (viola)
rec. 27-28 February, 30 April 2009, Wyastone Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NAXOS 8.572318 [58:08]

Prokofiev’s dramatic and colourful ballet of Romeo and Juliet spawned a number of equally successful spin-offs. We have the composer’s own orchestral suites - Opp. 64bis, 64ter and 101 - and his piano transcriptions, Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s astonishing rendition of the latter - recently reissued by Eloquence - was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2012 (review). As for the ballet itself I doubt the Covent Garden production with Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo as the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, will be equalled, let alone surpassed, any time soon (review).
 
Until now these composer-approved viola and piano arrangements by Russian violist and teacher Vadim Borisovsky (1900-1972) have eluded me; in fact, this CD has been languishing in my in-tray for a while, so I decided it was time to unwrap it and listen. My colleague Oleg Ledeniov speaks glowingly of this disc (review) and it wasn’t long before I discovered why. Quite apart from the quality of the writing and playing - Britons Michael Hampton and Matthew Jones are first-rate artists - the sonics of this release are superb; perspectives are natural, timbres are truthful and the recording offers an ideal blend of warmth and clarity.
 
After a lovely, surging Introduction - Hampton’s deeply expressive, yet perfectly scaled piano playing is a delight - violist Matthew Jones brings poetry and pin-sharp articulation to the nimble music of The Street Awakens. One of the abiding pleasures of Ashkenazy’s disc is his intuitive response to Prokofiev’s delectable rhythms and subtle colours, especially in the minuet from The Entry of the Guests. Hampton and Jones are just as sensitive to these telling nuances. Their Dance of the Knights has all the weight and thrust one could wish. In amongst this dignified display the gentle viola tunes emerge with melting beauty.
 
Goodness, this is playing of rare distinction, the soloists responding to each other in a most engaging and spontaneous way. Mercutio struts to music of tremendous virility - well caught here - yet it’s all so economically done, whether in the ballet, the suites, the transcriptions or these fine arrangements. That’s also true of the Balcony Scene, whose judicious mix of lyricism and ardour is so intensely moving. Indeed, somewhat misty-eyed I reached for the Repeat button, marvelling anew at the magic of both the music and the music-making.
 
Carnival is dispatched with point and sparkle, and violist Rivka Golani makes a solid contribution to Dance with Mandolins. In that Covent Garden production of Romeo and Juliet Friar Laurence is played with a benevolent, unworldly air that Prokofiev encapsulates in the artless music associated with him. Needless to say Hampton and Jones are every bit as affecting in Romeo at Friar Laurence’s Home; indeed, they find a memorable sense of communion here. of aching tenderness even. Rarely have I been so spellbound by two instrumentalists working in such close and productive harmony.
 
It’s not all moody and introspective though; the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are marked by music - and playing - of trenchancy and power. After that the effervescent Morning Serenade is as palate cleansing as a zingy sorbet. Really, there isn’t a dull moment on this disc, each vignette brimming with character and incident. As ever these musicians are attuned to the changing emotional temperature of this score and they respond to its fluctuations with eloquence and passion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the goosebump-inducing Epilogue that brings this performance to a most satisfying close.
 
It’s a measure of just how far this bargain label has come in the past quarter century that it’s consistently producing discs of such quality - albeit at a slightly higher price - and that goes for their liner-notes as well. Occasionally I quibble about the sonics, but otherwise there’s much to enjoy - and discover - in their burgeoning catalogue.

Subtle arrangements, masterful musicianship and a top-flight recording; a must for all Prokofiev fans. 
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei  

Track-listing
Arranged by Vadim Borisovsky, except *David Grunes and **Matthew Jones/Michael Hampton
 
Introduction [2:16]
The Street Awakens [1:37]
Juliet as a Young Girl [3:23]
Minuet - Arrival of the Guests [3:15]
Masks* [2:21]
Dance of the Knights [5:55]
Mercutio [2:30]
Balcony Scene [5:06]
Carnival [3:46]
Dance with Mandolins# [2:12]
Romeo at Friar Laurence’s Home [7:17]
Death of Mercutio [2:58]
Death of Tybalt** [3:30]
Morning Serenade# [2:23]
Dance of the Lily Maidens* [2:27]
Epilogue: Parting Scene and Death of Juliet [6:44] 


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