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S & H Concert Review

Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet (complete), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, RFH, 6th June 2004 (MB)

The last time Prokofiev’s complete ballet score was performed in concert in London was in 2002 when Rostropovich conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra as part of his 75th birthday celebrations. That was an unforgettable experience, and in its own way so too was the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s sublimely played performance under their long-term music director, Valery Gergiev.

Gergiev’s approach to this work has not changed markedly since his 1990 recording of the work with the Kirov. There is still that cumulative - and raw - power which he brings to both The Quarrel and The Fight, movements which are taken at breakneck speed. Occasionally this approach can have its drawbacks – The Dance of the Knights, for example, can seem marginally underpowered in Gergiev’s hands – yet where it counts he is capable of producing a white hot intensity that few rival. The Death of Tybalt and the Finale to Act II were extraordinarily dramatic – though just perhaps one wished for some of the terrifying brutality which Celibidache brought to this music - and there is never any shortage of expressivity in the work’s more poetic moments. Both the Balcony Scene (including an unusually opulent Love Dance) and much of Act III were shrouded in a heavenly sounding cloak of beautifully phrased woodwind and string playing that reminded one that this is still a love story of doomed passion. Indeed, the Epilogue itself shore nothing from the tragedy implicit in the music and was injected with the just the requisite amount of searing intensity.

What is also clear is that Gergiev takes the vast two-and-a–half- hour canvas that is the ballet and turns it into one luminous symphonic whole. Never has the ballet seemed that before in my experience: with Act I likened to a symphonic allegro, Act II a scherzo, Act III an andante and Act IV a closing adagio this performance had a symphonic breadth that was simply captivating. There may have been moments when the tension sagged – some of Act I, perhaps the most balletic of the acts, suffered from an occasional loss of momentum and Act II, whilst having a gravity of its own, could overwhelm for its own sake rather than for the sake of the music. But at its best, this was a performance which set the balance between the four acts’ different temperaments ideally.

None of this would have been possible without the virtuosic playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic who seamlessly negotiated Gergiev’s extremes of rubato with a polished consistency. Brass never hijacked the performance in the way some conductors feel they need to, and the percussion were never less than solid. The strings tended towards the rugged rather than the romantic – ideal for this performance, but not principally the ideal – although one could only marvel at the consistently canorous ‘cellos and their luscious phrasing and the tenebrous basses, especially in the Death of Tybalt. Pointed articulation – and some stunning dynamics (in the thunderous Introduction, for example) – showed an orchestra at its collective best.

Without the spectacle of ballet itself Prokofiev’s complete score can seem a long haul in the concert hall. Rostropovich had the advantage in that his performance was semi staged; Gergiev had no such advantage. It is a tribute to this conductor’s talent for creating performances of searing intensity that this performance held the interest for its entirety.


Marc Bridle

Further Listening:

Romeo and Juliet (complete), Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Decca 4529702)

Romeo and Juliet (excerpts), SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sergiu Celibidache (DG 4451392, part of boxed set)


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