Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
Romeo and Juliet Suite (1935)
see end of reivew for track listing
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Symphony Center, Chicago, 3, 5, 8, and 11 October 2013
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011402 [48:50]

The latest release on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s own Resound label is a ten-movement sequence of numbers from the first two of Sergei Prokofiev’s three suites from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, op. 60 (1938). This brilliantly engineered recording presents the pieces in the chronology in which they occur in the full ballet.

Romeo and Juliet has close associations with the Chicago Symphony, which had the American premiere of excerpts from the score in 1937, a year before the full ballet was first performed. Over the years, this music has been reprised by various conductors at the CSO. Most recently conductor Riccardo Muti has performed this music at Symphony Center and also with the CSO on tour. This recording preserves those efforts in a sonically compelling release that stands well with other recordings of music from this important twentieth-century ballet.

While the CSO offers notably full and resonant readings of the more extroverted numbers, like the “Death of Tybalt”, a similar richness is part of the slow movements. For example, the well-known “Juliet the Young Girl” movement is particularly sonorous. The CSO’s practised strings allow the composer’s textures to sound clearly. While some recordings of this piece seem treble-dominated, this one has the depth that the composer scored for the movement. Muti’s generous tempos allow the ensemble to bring out the tone colours that Prokofiev used to characterize Juliet and so set up the sonorities that recur later in the ballet. These operate as a kind of Leitmotif or, perhaps, a reminiscence motif in the musical narrative that derives from the dramatic one in Shakespeare’s play. The distinctive sounds of the CSO’s wind section contribute to the delicacy of “Juliet the Young Girl” as a self-contained character piece from the ballet.

The same quality pervades the “Madrigal” which is equally full-sounding. In this piece the CSO’s clear articulation of the homophonic sonorities gives it a unique quality, which is distinct from the harsh dissonances and blatant scorings of the confrontation between the warring parties in the “Montagues and Capulets”. With the finely trained and expertly rehearsed CSO, the dissonances in the latter are clear and audible. No mere massive of notes, the stacking dissonances that suggest the conflict are sufficiently present to take down as dictation. At the same time, the voices in the sonorities have the kind of balance that comes from an ensemble that knows the piece well.

As much as the latter number sets up the programme, as it were, for this ballet, the “set pieces” that Prokofiev used in the score warrant attention. Just as the layered dissonances in the first piece were exemplary in representing the score, the gestures accompanying the swordfight in “The Death of Tybalt” receive a fine hearing in this recording. The figures represent the scenario well, as they enter with the lightning speed that expert swordsmen would exhibit when fighting for their lives. This sense of immediacy emerges well in the recording, where the other programmatic ideas Prokofiev used become part of the sonic imagery. The percussion entries, for example, are all precision and continue with the necessary dry repletion to suggest the last beats of Tybalt's dying body. This transforms into the funeral march for Tybalt, which makes use of the tight and pointed snare drum gestures that help to characterize this performance. It is easy to hear the brass gestures within this framework, as the angular melodicism Prokofiev used lends itself to powerful expression. Here the legendary brass style of the CSO gives voice to the number, with the wailing gestures in the trumpets and horns sonorous without becoming strident or forced. An earlier release on CSO Resound, Chicago Symphony Brass Live includes an arrangement for brass instruments of three numbers: “The Montagues and the Capulets”, “Dance” and “The Death of Tybalt”. Such control is one of the features of this recording, thereby demonstrating both the technical facility of the CSO and also its capacity for expression.

In this context, the pacing of the elements serves the score well. The image of the “Young Juliet” is not merely a passing item in this recording, but an important gesture when the music from the earlier movement recurs in “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb”. The attention to detail supports the whole as the various gestures of Prokofiev’s ballet take shape in this vivid recording. While this release contributes a powerful and convincing interpretation to the discography, it is difficult to ignore some of the other fine recordings. Among other selections of numbers from the ballet is the one by Michael Tilson Thomas recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor Red Seal, 1996), which remains an impressive effort (review). Muti’s latest release is comparable, albeit small in scale because of the focus on ten numbers from the fifty-two in the full ballet. Sonically this recording is attentive to detail which is not only audible but also beautifully shaped and engineered with style.

James L Zychowicz

Previous review: Dan Morgan

Track listing
1 Montagues and Capulets 5:17 (from Suite 2)
2 Juliet the Young Girl 4:17 (from Suite 2)
3 Madrigal 3:33 (from Suite 1)
4 Minuet 3:01 (from Suite 1)
5 Masks 2:08 (from Suite 1)
6 Romeo and Juliet 7:49 (from Suite 1)
7 Death of Tybalt 4:38 (from Suite 1)
8 Friar Laurence 2:58 (from Suite 2)
9 Romeo and Juliet before Parting 8:46 (from Suite 2)
10 Romeo at Juliet's Tomb 6:23 (from Suite 2)

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