Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Suite from Romeo and Juliet (1936) [48:50]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, 3, 5, 8, 11 October 2013, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
See end of review for track-listing
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011402 [48:50]

Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet is one of his greatest achievements and a work that ranks very highly indeed in the canon of Russian ballets. The complete score has been recorded several times and for anyone wishing to experience it in full I’d commend particularly the EMI recording by Previn and the LSO and Lorin Maazel’s recording for Decca with the Cleveland. Both of these are excellent and illuminate the music in different ways: as a generalization Previn tends to be warm and romantic while Maazel is razor-sharp.

The composer extracted three concert suites from the ballet: the First Suite Op. 64a and the Second Suite Op. 64b (both 1936) were followed in 1947 by a Third Suite, Op 101. It’s quite usual for conductors to make their own selection from the suites, as Riccardo Muti has done here, though in doing so he’s ignored Op. 101. Oddly, in the booklet the source of each piece isn’t given but I’ve added them to the track-listing.

The playing on this disc is stunning, as is the sound quality. This is obvious right at the start when those immense dissonances that open ‘Montagues and Capulets ‘pile up to be followed immediately by a soft, rich carpet of string tone. When the syncopated tune gets going the orchestral weight is very apparent. However, all is not weight and power. The flute-led variant later in the movement is played with winning delicacy and Muti and his players bring delicacy and a sense of innocent youthful eagerness to ‘Juliet the Young Girl’. There’s equal finesse in ‘Madrigal’.

The Balcony Scene, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, sounds magnificent. There’s tremendous refinement in the opening moments – Muti sets a moonlit scene before us. Gradually the ardour mounts and the depth of sound that Muti gets from the CSO is amazing; this is truly a sound built up from the depths of the orchestra. Frankly, it’s easy to be seduced simply by the quality of the playing and by the refulgent recorded sound. However, it was interesting to make a comparison with the excellent disc of extracts in which Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review). Muti uses rubato quite a bit for expressive effect – and convincingly so - whereas Chung makes the music flow a little bit more. The Chicagoans are mightily impressive but so, too, are the members of the Concertgebouw – the way they play the opening to this movement is magical. A key difference lies in the recorded sound. The CSO Resound recording is very full-on and quite close; it packs a punch. By contrast Chung’s DG sound is somewhat more distant which, for one thing, allows the acoustic aura of the Concertgebouw itself to make a contribution. Though Chung’s recording is over 21 years old it’s by no means to be despised.

Moving on to ‘The Death of Tybalt’, one of the dramatic high points of the ballet, Chung is impressive – his playing of the cortège is very powerful. Muti’s performance has staggering impact; the playing is knife-edge in its precision in the fast section and then the cortège generates tremendous power. Mind you, for all its potency I’m not sure that memories of the classic1959 Ančerl recording are completely erased (review).

Ančerl sets the standard, too, in ‘Romeo at Juliet's Tomb’. Under his direction at the start the Czech Philharmonic play as if the music were being wrenched from them and his account of this entire movement is gripping ... but Muti is also tremendous. There’s anguish in the playing of the strings in the opening bars and we’re plunged into black despair. The reminiscences of earlier, happier thematic material are sorrow-laden. Later on the horns are quite superb and at 3:33 the power of the brass and percussion bring crunching grief to the music. The soft ending is tragic.

This is a hugely impressive disc. I can imagine a few raised eyebrows at the relatively short playing time but I imagine this suite formed the second half of a concert. Some other conductors, like Ančerl, play sets of excerpts that are of a similar length but other music is added to complete the programme. Others again – and Chung is one such – offer a more generous selection of movements from the suites. However, this is one occasion when I think we can safely say that quality should be prized above quantity. Muti offers a superbly theatrical performance and he’s backed to the hilt by peerless orchestral playing. I’ve heard most of the CSO Resound discs to date and I’ve always been impressed with the audio quality but I think this may be the very best sound that the label has ever produced. Producer David Frost and his engineering team of Tim Martyn, Charlie Post and Shawn Murphy have done Muti and the CSO proud.

I’d urge you to hear Ančerl and Chung if you haven’t already done so but this new disc from Riccardo Muti positively demands your attention.

John Quinn

Another review ...

Prokofiev prepared three suites from the Romeo and Juliet ballet score, one of his finest accomplishments. On this new CSO-Resound release Riccardo Muti has chosen ten pieces from the first two suites. These were recorded in 2013 during live concerts at the Symphony Centre, Chicago.

Now one of the best known works in twentieth-century classical music Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare’s play, was written in 1935 following encouragement by his friend the stage director Sergei Radlov. The Kirov Ballet that had commissioned the score dropped out and the project was continued by the Bolshoi Theatre.

It is fitting that the CSO gives this live account as Chicago was the first American city to hear excerpts from the ballet score even before the full ballet had been performed. In fact, Prokofiev played with and conducted the CSO several times and during his last visit to Chicago in 1937 he conducted the orchestra in selections from his new Romeo and Juliet ballet score. The premiere of the complete ballet was eventually given in Brno in 1938 and subsequently in Russia in 1940 with some new sections added.

My highlights of this Muti recording include the opening section Montagues and Capulets (also known as Dance of the Knights). This is the musical core of the work and has become famous as a stand-alone accompanying countless events as well as television and radio programmes. The depiction of the feuding Veronese Montague and Capulet families features two shattering climaxes which are given with no-holds-barred drama by Muti’s Chicago players. Notable is the highly rhythmic playing in Masks and the meltingly romantic portrayal of the balcony scene (Romeo and Juliet). The Death of Tybalt is grippingly action-packed, Before Parting is achingly passionate and the stunningly played final section, Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb is full of drama.

Outshining most of the Romeo and Juliet accounts this outstanding live performance is characterful and profoundly dramatic having the benefit of glowing sound. As the recording is so outstanding you can perhaps overlook the woefully short playing time. Of all the Romeo and Juliet recordings, both highlights and the complete score, I still find the most exciting a selection from the suites from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded in 1986 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Sony. In the complete four act ballet score I admire the 1973 account from the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel from the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland on Decca.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan & James L Zychowicz

1 Montagues and Capulets (Op. 64b/1) [5:17]
2 Juliet the Young Girl (Op 64b/2) [4:17]
3 Madrigal (Op. 64a/3) [3:33]
4 Minuet (Op. 64a/4) [3:01]
5 Masks (Op. 64a/5) [2:08]
6 Romeo and Juliet (Op. 64a/6) [7:49 ]
7 Death of Tybalt (Op. 64a/7) [4:38]
8 Friar Laurence (Op. 64b/3) [2:58]
9 Romeo and Juliet before Parting (Op. 64b/5) [8:46]
10 Romeo at Juliet's Tomb (Op. 64b/7) [6:23]

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