This new release from the Chicago Symphony’s own label, CSO
Resound, is one of a growing number that offers rather less music
than is usual for a CD. The BIS/Manze recording of the Adès
Violin Concerto and Couperin Studies [34:11] and
the Chandos/Oundjian Scheherazade [45:20] are typical examples
of this shift in strategy. Admittedly, in the case of the Adès
BIS are withholding a physical release until a suitable coupling is
found; however, Chandos and CSO Resound seem happy to offer these
short programmes on discs without fillers.
I’m a bit puzzled by the economics of all this. In the case
of the Adès, BIS s per-second charging means that the 24/96
flacs sell on eclassical for the equivalent of £5.75; in a business
where download prices err on the high side this represents excellent
value, not least when the performances are as good as this (review).
Ditto their 24/96 flacs of this Romeo and Juliet, which are
priced at £8.20 for just under 49 minutes of music. The CD sells
for the equivalent of £9.30 in the US - which is reasonable
- but I've seen it advertised at £15 or more in the UK. The
reverse is true of the Chandos Scheherazade; The Classical
Shop price the 24/192 and surround files at £13.99 and £19.99
respectively, whereas the SACD can be had for just £9.30. Go
figure, as they say.
Now that the number crunching is out of the way let’s get back
to the review. I’ve long been an admirer of Riccardo Muti, whose
Warner Verdi sets were early additions to my LP collection forty years
ago. Despite some health scares and a nasty fall in 2010 he’s
still going strong. His tenure in Philadelphia – from 1980 to
1992 – produced some fine recordings, among them a magnificent
set of Scriabin's
orchestral outpourings. Since 2010/11 Muti has been music director
of the Chicago Symphony, with whom he has made several SACDs for CSO
Resound. Their Verdi Requiem was particularly well received
on these pages (review).
Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded excerpts from the first
two Romeo and Juliet suites for Warner back in 1981.
This new Chicago release offers 10 of the best-known numbers from
these suites, recorded at live concerts in 2013. My benchmark here
– as indeed it is for so much ballet music - is Ernest Ansermet
and the OSR (review).
That said, Paavo Järvi’s Cincinnati account of all three
suites for Telarc should not be overlooked. Incidentally, if you fancy
the composer’s Romeo and Juliet transcriptions for
piano you must hear this;
and if you don’t know Borisovsky’s arrangements for viola
and piano get this.
Muti opens with the Montagues and Capulets, whose drenching
weight and power is then leavened by some lovely, inward playing from
the Chicagoans. That big, striding theme is crisply done, and it’s
clear this is a recording to be reckoned with. Not surprising, perhaps,
as CSO Resound’s David Frost is a Grammy-Award-winning producer.
I can hear details in this mix that I seldom do elsewhere - what gorgeous,
tactile woodwinds - and the percussion is powerful but not overbearing.
Indeed, balances are well nigh perfect throughout. The music-making
is mighty impressive too, with the young Juliet most beautifully drawn.
As good as Ansermet and his orchestra are they simply can’t
compete with such superb playing/sonics; however, they do bring a
spontaneity and warmth to the music that Muti is apt to miss. It’s
certainly not a deal-breaker, but it is a timely reminder of Ansermet’s
unique, highly theatrical way with these scores. That said, in Muti’s
hands the Madrigal is absolutely ravishing, and the recording
sets new standards with its sheer naturalness and uncanny realism.
True, the full auditorium has a damping effect on the sound, but that
hardly matters when the performance is as gripping as this.
I particularly like the robust Minuet with its perfectly
punctuated percussion, not to mention that lovely, yearning tune that
haunts the score like an idée fixe. Masks
is well articulated – what astonishing detail – but I
still feel Ansermet’s more yielding approach humanises the drama
in a way that Muti's doesn’t. Having marked the latter down
at this point the following number, simply titled Romeo and Juliet,
had me hearing this ardent, heartfelt music as if for the very first
time. Muti judges the drama’s nodal points very well, so tuttis
bloom naturally and a compelling narrative is preserved. The Chicago
strings are just extraordinary in their blend of finesse and feeling.
Muti is at his best in the macho strut leading up to Tybalt’s
death. On record and in the concert hall he’s known to overdrive
the music at times, but he’s superbly controlled here. The pounding
timps that accompany Tybalt’s death throes are as incisive as
I’ve ever heard them; not only that, the score glows with an
array of unexpected colours that had me reaching for the repeat button.
Muti’s characterisation of the gentle Friar Laurence reminds
me of the unforgettable Carlos Acosta/ROH Blu-ray of Romeo and
Juliet, in which the monk’s benevolence is enhanced by
deeply affecting visuals (review).
It just gets better, with the star-cross’d lovers parting to
music of the utmost tenderness and gossamer line; the purity of the
lower strings beggars belief, and only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t
break when faced with the sustained loveliness of this pivotal scene.
Also, that big surging tune is perfectly scaled, so as not to overshadow
the intimate drama now unfolding before us. In a performance full
of epiphanies the one that lingers longest is the realisation that
this is surely Prokofiev’s most radiant score; indeed, his music
pierces the heart as surely and as cleanly as Shakespeare’s
immortal lines. Nowhere is that more evident than at Juliet’s
tomb, where grief has never seemed so raw or fate so cruel.
Technically this is a stupendous performance, captured in sound of
class-leading beauty and strength. Muti and his Chicagoans make a
formidable team, but this sumptuous reading won't please those who
prefer their Prokofiev with a little more spunk and spike. Muti certainly
doesn't supplant Ansermet in terms of dramatic insight, but what he
does do is clothe this well-worn music in breathtaking raiment.
In short, these are complementary versions, each with their own virtues;
Prokofiev fans should have both.
A high-water mark in recorded sound; gorgeous playing, too.