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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette [93:54]
Katija Dragojevic (mezzo)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Swedish Radio Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Robin Ticciati
rec. live, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, 3-8 November 2014
LINN CKD521 [50:49 + 43:05]

This is a marvellous set, the finest Roméo et Juliette to appear for several years, and worthy, in very different ways, to stand alongside illustrious competition from the likes of Sir Colin Davis and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Robin Ticciati conducted Berlioz’s great “dramatic symphony” at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival with the (smaller) forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (review), and that made a fascinating gateway for me to approach this piece, because many of the things that I praised in his Edinburgh performance are also on display here.

For a start, Ticciati’s work with the SCO has helped him refine his knowledge of and interest in period performance (albeit mostly on modern instruments), and that has helped him bring frequently revelatory sound. In Berlioz, that happened most triumphantly in his Symphonie Fantastique recording (review - one my discs of the year in 2012), and here he couples the benefits of “authentic” practice with the scale of a modern symphony orchestra. Most obviously, the strings use minimal vibrato (much as they did – equally successfully – in their recent Symphonie Fantastique with Daniel Harding - review) and so get closer to the probable sound style of Berlioz’s own day.  It works very well, particularly in moments like the wistful opening of Roméo seul, which sounds almost elegiac when played like this.  It also lends particular poignancy to the opening union strings of Juliet’s funeral cortège, and the wandering lines here sound even more archaic and modal than they normally do.

However, this remains a big sound for a symphonic performance, and no one who enjoys the scale of Berlioz’s vision need fear being put off by what is on offer here. The opening fight scene, for example, is cutting and incisive, but also dramatic and exciting, with a big sound in a big acoustic that gives it helpful resonance, something the Linn team has captured very well.

The Scène d’amour, in many ways, encapsulates the best of both worlds. The bed of strings that cushions the music is very beautiful, but also welcomingly transparent.  The violas are unusually prominent, for example, and there is a wonderful dynamic within the string section (in addition to the more normally remarked-on duet between the flutes and the cellos) which opens up the orchestral texture beautifully and enormously expressively.  This is even finer than his SCO recording of the scene, not only because it sits in the context of the complete work, but because there is more build and momentum, particularly towards the end, where the violins seem almost to be bidding farewell to the scene over which they are drawing a curtain.

That transparency also helps the Queen Mab scherzo sound especially delicate and gossamer-light, but not small: it remains impressively symphonic and larger in scale than his SCO performance sounded to me in Edinburgh, the horn calls of the central section only reinforcing that.

It would be a mistake to think that the playing style is the most important thing about the performance, however, because Ticciati, a confirmed Berliozian, brings countless loving touches to bring the score to life.  The music of Capulet’s party, for instance, seems to approach from a distance, giving the drama an almost cinematic quality, and when it arrives it has such a swing to it as to make you wish you had an invitation.  He also controls the most overtly dramatic sections of the piece with a mastery that reminds you of his experience in the opera house.  Every section of the unfolding story in the Capulets’ tomb, for example, is laid out with crystal clarity and great orchestral colour, from the busy skirmish with Paris and the brass-laden awe of the tomb’s interior, through to the bassoon-led lament for Juliet and the beautifully delicate clarinet solo that depicts Juliet’s reawakening.

The singing isn’t quite in the same league as the orchestral playing, but it’s still very good. The semi-chorus of the Prologue sound excellent, balanced perfectly against the orchestra, and they revel in the harmonies that Berlioz gives them.  The full chorus have just the right sense of scale and breadth for Juliet’s funeral cortège, and they throw themselves into the drama of the Friar Lawrence scene in a manner that would do credit to an opera chorus.

Katija Dragojevic has a big, throaty voice which isn’t always beautiful, but which fills the mezzo’s role perfectly, and she has a wonderfully declamatory style for the Strophes, making a perfect fit for both the music and the archaic oeuvre that Berlioz was trying to recapture.  Andrew Staples sounds like a bit of a tourist in this repertoire, and his nasal tone isn’t a patch on, say, Kenneth Tarver for Gergiev.  Nor does Alastair Miles sound too comfortable when he first enters as Friar Lawrence, though he rises very impressively to a stirring final peroration in which he is thrillingly supported by the orchestra and chorus.

That doesn’t stop this being the best Roméo et Juliette to have come my way for a long time, something to be sought out by those who love the work but want to hear it done with freshness and invention. The beautiful Linn packaging helps, too, with the discs encased within a hardback book which contains biographies, sung texts and translations, as well as a typically excellent essay by Berlioz authority Hugh Macdonald.

Simon Thompson



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