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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet
Suite No 1, Op 64a (1936)
Suite No 2, Op 64b (1936)
Suite No 3, Op 101 (1946)
Performed in the order the music appears in the ballet score
Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton
rec. June 2005, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-SACD-1301 [74:16]

Not long ago I reviewed Andrew Litton’s excellent recording of the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony and ended by expressing the hope that he and the Bergen Philharmonic might make a recording of the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet. I’d completely overlooked this present disc, which we don’t seem to have reviewed when it was issued back in 2006.

Prokofiev extracted three orchestral suites from his great ballet score. The first two suites, each of seven movements, were compiled before the ballet had been staged – its first staging was in Brno at the end of 1938 but it was not until 1940 that the ballet was seen in the USSR. In 1946 the composer put together a third suite consisting of six movements. As Andrew Huth remarks in his booklet notes, Prokofiev had to do quite a bit of cutting and pasting when he fashioned these suites and some people have found the individual suites not entirely satisfactory, precisely for that reason. Many conductors devise their own compilation, drawing either from the first two suites or from all three. Andrew Litton has done something a little different: he plays all three suites in full on this recording and he sequences the individual movements so that they appear in the same order that one hears in a complete performance of the ballet. I don’t know how often this has been done before on disc but it seems an eminently sensible way to proceed. The music that’s presented here accounts for almost half the length of the ballet.

Litton’s credentials as a Prokofiev conductor have been well established in the recordings he made for BIS during his time with the Bergen Philharmonic and those credentials are again evident here. It seems to me that he has an excellent feel for Prokofiev’s idiom and for his unique, often piquant scoring. On this occasion he conducts with a good sense of the drama and he’s backed up by very good playing from the orchestra. The BIS recording, which I heard as a hybrid SACD, has plenty of punch and depth. The listener feels quite close to the orchestra but a very welcome amount of detail can be readily discerned.

The selection includes quite a number of lighter-toned pieces. I like, for instance, the lightness and eagerness of ‘Juliet as a Young Girl’. Here the Bergen Phil conveys the innocence of the adolescent Juliet. Later (around 1:20), where Prokofiev portrays her in a more pensive mood, the flutes and solo cello delight the ear. Litton brings out the charm in ‘Juliet’; here there’s plenty of finesse in the playing. Earlier the bustle of ‘The Street Awakens’ is well conveyed. Towards the end of the selection ‘Aubade’ is delivered with admirable precision.

By contrast there’s huge power when the Ducal authority is displayed at the start of ‘Montagues and Capulets’ and in that same movement the music which is the ‘Knights’ Dance’ in the ballet lumbers along, the steps deliberately heavy; you can almost imagine an armoured knight trying to take his dance steps. At this point I dug out a couple of comparative versions. Last year I joined Dan Morgan and James L Zychowicz in praising a live performance of music from Romeo and Juliet by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. The sound on that CD was superb; how would it match up to Litton’s sonics? Well, when I started to play the opening of Muti’s ‘Montagues and Capulets’ I had to make a very hasty and significant reduction in the volume. The CSO Resound recording is cut at a much higher level than the BIS. Once I’d got the volume levels sorted out I was reminded just how impressive Muti is. The Ducal power music is hugely imposing and on balance I prefer his slightly more mobile speed for the Knights’ Dance. The other disc I auditioned was a 1993 recording, also on CD, by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung, which I much admired as far back as 2006, when it was reissued. Frankly, I expected the 22-year-old DG recording to be outclassed by its more recent rivals but not so. The sound is different because the DG engineers, who I’m sure, were recording the RCO in an otherwise empty Concertgebouw, have placed the orchestra rather further away from the listener. Also there’s more resonance from the hall than one hears on the other two recordings. Some may not like that approach but I do. As for the performance, it’s very fine indeed. Chung conducts very well – he is close to Muti in tempo for the Knights’ Dance – and the RCO play magnificently.

I couldn’t resist making further comparisons when it came to ‘The Death of Tybalt’. Litton projects the quarrel and fight strongly and the cortège music is very powerful indeed. However, if anything Chung is even more exciting early on – his tempo is noticeably quicker and the cortège is very potent; the sound of the RCO seems to expand out into the empty hall and fill it. Chung takes no prisoners here. As for Muti he has the awesome collective virtuosity of the Chicagoans at his disposal so the playing during the fight is electrifying – remember, this is live – and it’s captured in tremendously vivid sound. He’s a bit quicker than the other two conductors in the cortège but the sheer power of his orchestra ensures that there’s no lack of bite or weight.

The lovers themselves are portrayed most effectively at various stages in the drama by all three conductors. In the Balcony Scene Litton’s performance opens in hushed delicacy; his Bergen players do him proud. The increasing ardour of the young couple comes over vividly and Litton relishes the ripe, romantic music with which Prokofiev depicts their burgeoning love; this section is one of the composer’s greatest lyrical inspirations. The slightly more distant balance of Chung’s recording helps him to convey even more of the magic in the air at the start of this number than either of his rivals achieve. But the engineering is only part of the story; the finesse of the RCO in these pages ravishes the ear. Litton is touching at the start of ‘Romeo and Juliet before parting’ and he does the close of this section, with its gossamer-thin ostinati, very well. Chung is rather slower and more tender at the start and he’s generally more expansive in this movement – much to the music’s benefit, I think. Those closing pages are slower than Litton takes them and it seems to me that as a result Chung generates more tension.

The drama moves to its tragic dénouement: ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’, followed by ‘The Death of Juliet’. Litton obtains great intensity from the Bergen violins at the start – though the RCO, for Chung, are absolutely searing at this point. Litton’s conducting is very fine. He brings out the drama and tragedy without ever going over the top and he generates a good deal of tension. The subdued end of ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ (from 4:43) is very fine. When we get to ‘The Death of Juliet’ Litton is once again very impressive and his Bergen strings are eloquent in Juliet’s last outpouring of love and grief. Chung, however, is even finer. His conducting of ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ grabs the listener by the throat and the tragic power of the RCO’s playing is riveting – the high horns are simply superb. The music has shattering intensity in his hands and the broader speed which he adopts, allied to the tonal weight of the RCO, makes a great impact. When it comes to ‘The Death of Juliet’ Chung doesn’t so much tug at your heart strings as wrench them, the RCO glorious in its delivery of Prokofiev’s music. And though the Bergen strings are excellent they can’t quite match the soaring lines of the RCO. Muti offers only ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’. The Chicago orchestra plays with searing power yet they also demonstrate great subtlety and finesse where required.

So where does all this leave us? There’s a considerable amount to admire in Andrew Litton’s version. I think that interpretatively he yields to his two rivals on a few occasions but overall he conducts the music with great insight and with a fine sense of drama. The BIS sound is very impressive. The knock-out sound on the Muti disc has perhaps marginally more impact but both sets of engineers have done an excellent job. The sound on the Chung disc is, as I’ve indicated, a rather different proposition but I like it very much and though it’s over 20 years old it’s by no means put in the shade by the two more modern discs.

The actual music that’s on offer has to be a factor. Splendid though his performance is, Muti offers only ten numbers and a playing time of 48:50 is not over-generous. However, his disc should be judged on the basis of quality rather than quantity. Chung gives us 15 numbers and a playing time of 63:22. His selection offers all the ‘plums’. Litton has a tremendous advantage in presenting all three suites in full and with the music in order. That would sway me towards him over Muti and, indeed, sees him score points over Chung. Happily, the Chung recording, which is still available, is now at a very reasonable price indeed so you could possibly treat yourself to that as well as to Andrew Litton’s recording.

However, if you want just one recording of the suites from Prokofiev’s masterpiece then Litton’s comprehensive collection, very well played and in excellent sound, will give much pleasure.

John Quinn



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