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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (1935-36, 1938) [144:48]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra//Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2-6 November 2015, Oslo Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway
LAWO LWC1105 [78:52 + 65:56]

I cannot think of another recording in my recent experience where I have been left with such a mixed reaction. While I have had nothing but praise for Vasily Petrenko’s interpretations of Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, I have a more difficult time coming to terms with his Prokofiev—at least as it is presented here in Romeo and Juliet. Some of the music making is enthralling and really wonderful, but in other places very perplexing. Like John Quinn, who reviewed these discs recently, my favorite version of this full-length ballet has been Lorin Maazel’s with the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca). Comparing that with this new one, as well as a fine account by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (DG), has been most instructive. What perplexes me most about this new recording is that so much of it is really good, but then Petrenko decides to shift into lightning speed or slow down to a trudge and negate to some degree what he has presented so well hitherto. I also note that in Act II, as cited by another reviewer, Petrenko uses a corrupt score, based on a Bolshoi Theatre production, where the orchestration has been beefed up with added strings and percussion or substitution of one instrument for a different one.

For the most part, Act I goes well. The Introduction is performed beautifully with great feeling and especially fine woodwinds. So it continues until the Morning Dance (track 4), which is very fast, where the lower instruments do not make much of an impact. There is little depth to the sound and the important horns hardly register. Likewise the Quarrel (track 5) and Fight (track 6) practically fly by, but there it is more appropriate. However, a major drawback is the sound, which seems to lack real bass—especially as compared with Maazel or even Ozawa. Again the Duke’s Command (track 7) and Interlude (track 8), while well played and powerful, seem superficial next to Maazel and Ozawa. Indeed, the Interlude is nearly twice the tempo of Maazel, and Ozawa is even slower—perhaps too slow. The Arrival of the Guests (track 11) should sound regal and imposing, but here it is too quick and the sound lacks depth. On the other hand, the famous Dance of the Knights (track 13) is terrific, with the lower brass coming through strongly. Petrenko’s tempo seems right to me and I prefer his way with this dance to either Maazel or Ozawa. It has real swing and is not rushed. The Gavotte (track 18), which Prokofiev borrowed from his Classical Symphony and enlarged upon, is sheer perfection here, with outstanding articulation by the various instruments, particularly the superb bassoon and double bass. Petrenko certainly brings out the humour at the end of the Gavotte. The quiet ending to Act I is very effective, and the orchestra’s playing of the softer dynamics is generally a delight.

Act II disappoints most. Is this because of the score Petrenko is using or just misguided judgment? The folk dance that begins the act (track 22) is rushed to death and the contrasting section slowed way down. It makes for a very disjointed impression and I doubt it could be danced to. The orchestra sounds harsh, too. Maazel adopts a more leisurely and steady tempo throughout and has much more solid bass with tremendous bass drum thuds. Ozawa is even more sedate and a bit ponderous compared to Maazel. The Dance of the Five Couples (track 24) is better, though the oboe in the beginning of the dance is replaced here by trumpets in the score Petrenko is using. This doesn’t allow for enough contrast when the trumpet actually gets the march theme, which is impressive in itself. The beautiful Dance with Mandolins (track 25) is too swift and cannot compare with Maazel’s more danceable tempo and better instrumental balance. Ozawa, however, is even quicker than Petrenko. So, there is much variation when it comes to choosing tempos for these dances. The following three movements, Nurse, Nurse and Romeo, and Romeo at Friar Laurence’s, are excellent with Petrenko’s tempos and feeling for the music spot on. Romeo at Friar Laurence’s is quite lovely. There Maazel is slower and more methodical, almost stodgy, though the Cleveland Orchestra’s playing is heartbreakingly beautiful. Petrenko also has the measure of the next movement, Juliet at Friar Laurence’s (track 29), though Maazel outshines him in the depth and richness of his orchestra, and in the splendid Cleveland horns. The public merrymaking and festivities (CD 2, tracks 1 and 2) tend to rush by under Petrenko, whereas Maazel is less speedy and smoother, capturing the spirit of the music well. Again his horns are not buried in the texture as Petrenko’s are. Maazel’s powerful bass drum again makes quite an impact here in his superior recording.

For the remainder of Act II, from the Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio (track 3) through the Finale (track 7), Petrenko is generally fine in conveying the music. He can be fast and furious at one moment and very tender at the next, as is appropriate in depicting the action of the ballet. However, I agree with John Quinn that his extremely slow tempo for the funeral cortège in the Finale, with widely spaced march beats, is overdone and I also find his similarly slow tempo for the Death of Mercutio (track 5) hard to take. Maazel’s and Ozawa’s tempo choices in both instances are much to be preferred. I find little to criticize Petrenko for in Act III, though it is true that Maazel makes the more powerful impression and can be overwhelming, especially in Juliet’s Funeral (track 22). I wouldn’t always want to hear such intensity, as Petrenko is dramatic enough, but Maazel shakes the rafters. After this the calm of Juliet’s Death is all the more telling, and Petrenko delivers a fine conclusion with the bluesy chords by the woodwinds and the strings backing them. Earlier he excels in such dance movements as the Aubade (track 19) or Morning Serenade, as it is listed on Maazel’s and Ozawa’s recordings, and in the Dance of the Girls with Lilies (track 20)—one of my favourite numbers in the score. Petrenko obtains a gentle lift here with sensitive playing by the strings and woodwinds, including the saxophone.

Although I have found Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic’s achievement uneven, I must say he has provided me in many ways with a renewed appreciation for Romeo and Juliet. Since some of the conductor’s choices can be irritating, I will stick with Maazel as my first choice for this ballet. However, I will now consider this new version as a good supplement to Maazel. Ozawa’s account is more like Maazel’s than Petrenko’s, but I find it less distinctive overall.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: John Quinn



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