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

I first got to know Prokofiev’s balletic masterpiece Romeo and Juliet in its complete version through André Previn’s EMI recording with the LSO, a recording for which I still retain a lot of affection, not least for the warmth of Previn’s view of the score. That recording was made in London’s Kingsway Hall in June 1973. By a quirk of fate in that very same month Decca were in Severance Hall, Cleveland setting down another version of the complete ballet with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, though it was some time before I could afford a second version of the work to complement the Previn. In truth, Maazel did complement Previn for the two readings were different: Previn’s was warm and affectionately characterised while Maazel’s was full of virtuosity and tense drama. The Previn recording is still available separately, I think, in EMI’s Ballet Edition series (9677012). The Maazel is available as a 2-CD set from Decca (4529702).

Appropriately in the year when the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare is marked Vasily Petrenko offers us a new recording of the complete ballet score. Petrenko took up his post as Principal Conductor of the Oslo orchestra in 2013 and they’ve already released recordings of Scriabin symphonies (review). Although I’ve heard many of Petrenko’s Liverpool recordings this is the first of his Oslo discs to come my way.

After his period of self-imposed exile in Paris Prokofiev finally returned to live permanently in the Soviet Union in 1936. In the previous year the Kirov Ballet had proposed to him the idea of a ballet on the subject of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Kirov pulled out of the project but the Bolshoi took it up. However, the Bolshoi were dissatisfied with the score that Prokofiev produced and the ballet remained unperformed – and subject to quite a lot of changes, including a revision of the ending: for some reason Prokofiev had originally given the ballet a happy ending in which Romeo arrived in the nick of time to revive Juliet but wiser counsels prevailed and Shakespeare’s original intentions were respected. While waiting for someone to stage his ballet Prokofiev harvested two orchestral suites from the ballet score in 1938 and also a set of piano pieces. At last the ballet was staged in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938 and a Russian premiere – by the Kirov - followed in January 1940. After this difficult beginning Romeo and Juliet soon became firmly established as a classic of the Russian ballet repertoire.

In the concert hall and on disc the three orchestral suites that Prokofiev compiled from the ballet – the Third Suite followed the other two in 1946 – have given a high profile to Romeo and Juliet. Conductors often compile their own selections of pieces from the Suites and some of the best I’ve come across have been those by Karel Ančerl (review), Myung-Whun Chung (review), Andrew Litton, who offers all three suites on one CD (review) and Riccardo Muti (review). A well-planned selection from the suites will give you the highlights from the score and, ideally, a sense of the narrative also. However, hearing a good performance of the full ballet score can be an even more satisfying experience.

I enjoyed experiencing the whole ballet with Petrenko as my guide. His performance conveys a strong sense of the narrative – as do the Previn and Maazel versions. He’s very successful in the many short general dances, all of which go well. There’s ample vitality and a pleasing lightness of touch in these sections. So, for example, the Dance with Mandolins (Act 2) with its piquant cornet and clarinet contributions is nicely done. So too is the ‘Aubade’ (Act 3) where we encounter the mandolins again, while the ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’ that follows sways beguilingly.

Petrenko brings a winning lightness of touch to much of the music. At the very start, for instance, there’s a nice, easy charm to the Act 1 Introduction – by contrast Maazel is heavier here. A few minutes later ‘The Street Wakens’ is bright and rhythmically precise while the ‘Morning Dance’ that follows immediately is energetic and mobile. Petrenko is very good indeed in the way he brings to life Prokofiev’s depiction of the two young lovers – and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Shakespeare’s characters were adolescents. Thus, when we meet ‘The Young Juliet’ in Act 1 Petrenko makes the music light, lithe and eager – and in this number there’s some sophisticated solo playing to admire from the Oslo Phil’s principal clarinet, flute and cello. I noted with interest that Maazel adopts an even brisker tempo here; the results are exhilarating but Petrenko’s slightly less frantic speed is more credible and characterful – and more danceable – so he has a slight edge. Again, in ‘Juliet’s Variation’ following the lumbering ‘Knight’s Dance’ I savoured the delicacy of the Oslo performance and greatly admired the delicate principal flute.

Ultimately, though, a performance of Romeo and Juliet will stand or fall by the way in which the big dramatic scenes are handled. It will be noticed that I’ve already made a couple of comparisons with the Maazel version. Although I like the Previn performance a lot my comparisons confirmed that, after more than forty years his EMI recording is not quite in the same sonic league as Petrenko’s. On the other hand, Decca’s sound for Maazel is still outstandingly vivid. So my comparisons will be almost exclusively with Maazel.

The first big test is the Balcony Scene. One small point that’s worth making about the Maazel recording is that Decca aren’t quite as generous with their tracking as are Lawo for Petrenko – or, for that matter, EMI for Previn. So the three numbers that make up the Balcony Scene are conflated into one track by Decca. (Or at least they were on the original CD issue, which I have; the Double Decca reissue, referred to above, may have been re-tracked.) At the start of the Balcony Scene Petrenko establishes the moonlit ambience beautifully. ‘Romeo’s Variation’ has a real romantic spring in its step and then the Love Scene itself is full of ardour and youthful awakening. Though my main comparison was with Maazel it’s worth saying that Previn’s overall approach to the Balcony Scene is fairly similar to Petrenko’s though ‘Romeo’s Variation’ isn’t quite as springy. Unfortunately Previn’s rather bass-heavy recording, though rich-hued is not ideal here; that said, the LSO plays extremely well here and elsewhere. For out and out virtuosity Maazel’s Clevelanders take the palm but he takes the opening pages rather more swiftly than Petrenko and therefore isn’t quite as atmospheric. Nor is ‘Romeo’s Variation’ quite as impulsive and joyful. However, in the Love Scene the tonal richness of the Clevelanders is mightily impressive. Arguably Maazel is a fraction too weighty in these pages but there’s no lack of ardour and the playing sweeps the listener off his or her feet – and it’s all captured in vivid Decca sound.

Act 2 brings the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, the slaying of Mercutio and Romeo’s revenge. When Mercutio and Tybalt encounter each other Petrenko conveys the tension very well. Maazel’s performance, however, bristles with menace and the razor-sharp Cleveland playing is in a class of its own throughout this whole episode. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is dynamic in the Oslo performance but even more vivid and gripping in Cleveland. Petrenko captures the pathos of Mercutio’s dying moments as he tries to put on a brave face; Maazel is more edgy. Romeo’s despairing rage at the death of his friend and his determination to avenge him comes across bitingly in both performances. The confrontation and furious fight between Romeo and Tybalt is sharply etched by Petrenko but Maazel had me on the edge of my seat: his performance truly depicts a fight to the death. In the Finale, as Tybalt’s funeral cortège forms, I’m afraid Petrenko overplays his hand: I’ve never heard this music played so slowly. There’s no denying that the result is powerful but the effect is overdone. Maazel, by contrast, is swifter yet his account of this grim processional is searingly intense.

Before considering the end of the ballet I should mention that the two numbers in which Romeo and Juliet bid each other farewell in Act 3 are tenderly done by Petrenko. ‘Romeo bids Juliet farewell’ is a moving leave-taking, depicted with highly expressive playing by the Oslo Philharmonic. In the closing pages of the score we find Prokofiev at his most inspired. 'Juliet’s Funeral’ is very intense and dramatic in Petrenko’s hands. The Oslo brass provide just the right amount of tonal weight and the performance as a whole is very powerful indeed. After the hairpin crescendi and diminuendi the Oslo strings provide a suitably fragile beginning to ‘Juliet’s Death’. The music that follows is full of soaring melancholy lyricism and it seems to me that Petrenko gets the balance between tenderness and aching tragedy just about right. Maazel provides an altogether different experience. He takes the music to an altogether higher plane of intensity, aided by staggering playing from the Clevelanders, especially in ‘Juliet’s Funeral’. His performance really brings out the tragedy. I can imagine that some people might find this approach just a bit too intense but it bowls me over.

The Maazel recording is a marvellous achievement; it’s one of the finest things I’ve ever heard him do. Forty-three years after the sessions the Decca sound is still superb. The analogue recording is at a higher level than Lawo’s digital sound and the Decca sound really packs a punch. Furthermore the Decca engineers bring out a great deal of detail and give a thrilling aural picture of the Cleveland Orchestra in full cry. Maazel had inherited an orchestra honed to virtuoso levels by George Szell and the orchestra was no less impressive under him. I’d recommend anyone who loves Prokofiev’s great ballet score to hear how it sounds under Maazel.

Vasily Petrenko’s recording represents a very fine achievement. If at times he is surpassed by Maazel there are other places where I prefer his approach and the overall effect of his reading of the score is excellent. The Oslo Philharmonic plays extremely well for him and both the conductor and players have got right under the skin of Prokofiev’s music. The Lawo recording is very successful. The sound is natural and clear with good left-to-right and front-to-back perspectives. There’s a useful booklet note in Norwegian and English though I wish the two versions had been presented separately rather than in side-by-side columns in a pretty small font.

I enjoyed this new version of Romeo and Juliet very much. I wonder if Petrenko might consider setting down the Cinderella ballet as well.

John Quinn



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