Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet – Suites (1936) [48:50]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, 3, 5, 8, 11 October 2013, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011402 [48:50]

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.

Dan Morgan


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