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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Romeo et Juliette, Op. 17 (1839) [90:25]
Olga Borodina (mezzosoprano)
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Evgeny Nikitin (bass-baritone)
Guildhall School Singers
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 6 & 13 November 2013, The Barbican, London LSO LIVE LSO0762 [57:06 + 33:19]
Berlioz scholar David Cairns, in his remarkably interesting notes to this recording, makes a strong case that Romeo et Juliette is not an odd assembly of movements, as listeners often think, but a carefully organized choral symphony, Mahler ahead of his time. In practical terms, the work places huge financial and logistical demands upon any organization that mounts it. One needs a virtuoso orchestra, massive choirs, and three first-rate singers, who do not sing all that much. It is a testament to the popularity of Berlioz’s music that this inconvenient masterpiece is played so often.
Valery Gergiev’s recent recording with the London Symphony Orchestra is most successful in conveying the fevered excitement of Shakespeare’s young people, less so in quieter, more contemplative moments. Thus in the opening movement, the prince delivers a real royal scolding to the combatants. The Romeo alone movement is thrilling, but low on grace. The scherzo is nicely spooky. My mind wandered in Gergiev’s cortege for Juliet, surely not what Berlioz had in mind.
The soloists are good, but not always at their very best. Olga Borodina is ardent, projecting a fruity but never hooty tone. Kenneth Tarver may have the best night of it in his Mab Scherzetto, sounding both lively and sinister. Evgeny Nikitin is a stalwart Friar Lawrence in a stiff part in which most singers sound uncomfortable. The final section is ponderous, partly the fault of Berlioz, but Gergiev brings no light touch to this conclusion.
The recording is warm, but fuzzy. Early in the recording the fine choral contributions came through clearly, but turned murky by the Cortege movement. More wind detail would be welcome, and less prominence to the drums in this bass-heavy recording.
Despite Gergiev’s high energy, this performance is unlikely to dislodge old favourites.