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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, symphonie dramatique, Op. 17 (1839/1846) [104.31]
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Nicholas Phan (tenor)
Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, 28 June - 1 July 2017, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
No sung texts
SFS MEDIA SFS0074 SACD [67.42 + 36.49]

In 2020, after his 25th season, Michael Tilson Thomas will step down as music director of San Francisco Symphony, taking the title of music director laureate. Meanwhile the partnership is certainly sustaining an outstanding recorded legacy, winning a number of Grammy Awards since launching its in-house label SFS Media in 2001. Now San Francisco Symphony under Tilson Thomas has turned its attention to Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique, Roméo et Juliette. Tilson Thomas explains that with the large-scale choral symphony Roméo et Juliette “Berlioz is describing the mood changes he was going through during his relationship with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson”.

The background to the symphonie dramatique commences in 1827 when Berlioz saw actress Harriet Smithson play the heroine in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Infatuated both by the actress and her performance, he declared his wish to marry Smithson and to base a symphony on the play. Paganini who died in 1840 had guaranteed financial support for Berlioz’s next project which was Roméo et Juliette. Using Émile Deschamps’ libretto, based on Shakespeare’s play, Berlioz’s Symphonie Dramatique was subsequently premièred at Paris Conservatoire in 1839 but, dissatisfied with the score, he subjected it to considerable revision up to 1846; the final version was published in 1847. It is a score for solo voices, chorus and orchestra that is often overlooked whilst by contrast the popularity of the composer’s earlier Symphonie fantastique goes from strength to strength. The marked dramatic potential of Roméo et Juliette – Symphonie Dramatique has been acknowledged since its première and an operatic version was first staged in 1903. So, it’s no surprise that the balletic possibilities have been explored. A few months ago, in September 2018 I was delighted to report from a performance at Deutsche Oper, Berlin a revival of choreographer Sasha Waltz’s celebrated ballet version. After seeing Waltz’s choreographed production, I felt that attending a traditional concert or recording of the work just wouldn’t be the same: it will undoubtedly feel as if something is missing. Well, I was hasty with my judgement, since with this superb live recording of Roméo et Juliette from San Francisco Symphony everything feels just right.

Tilson Thomas has selected his team of soloists adroitly, as they do full justice to the demands of this challenging work. The performance of American Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is delightful; she is in such fine form, revealing her assured and secure voice. Excelling in his part too is American tenor Nicholas Phan, who demonstrates a lovely clear, expressive and colourful tone. Venezuelan-born and Italian-bred, bass-baritone Luca  Pisaroni makes a strong impression in the demanding Friar Lawrence episodes, displaying his steady, rounded tone and expressive capabilities to significant effect. There is consistently satisfying singing from San Francisco Symphony Chorus under chorus director Ragnar Bohlin; they make a deeply significant impact. Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas the sparkling playing of the San Francisco Symphony, in this impassioned scoring, feels inspired, demonstrating the ability to adopt relatively brisk tempi which never feel rushed. The orchestral sections notably the Love Scene and Queen Mab Scherzo are compellingly performed.

Recorded in PCM 192 kHz/24-bit high resolution audio this hybrid SACD studio master-quality, played on my standard player, sounds terrific, having an excellent cool clarity, presence and being well balanced. Although recorded live there is virtually no extraneous noise and no applause is retained at the conclusion. James M. Keller is the author of the interesting and informative booklet essay. A significant drawback however is the lack of any French sung texts with English translations.

This outstanding album from San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is beautifully performed and recorded.

Michael Cookson

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