Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette [90:25]
Olga Borodina (mezzo)
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Evgeny Nikitin (bass-baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Sympnony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Recorded live, November 2013 at the Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0762 SACD [57:06 + 33:19]

I’ve said before that the Gergiev was very brave to embark on a recorded Berlioz cycle with the LSO, principally because the competition, mainly from Sir Colin Davis and the same orchestra, is so stiff for every work. That affects this release every bit as adversely as their Symphonie Fantastique (review), but it’s not only that Davis is better: too much of this performance feels half-baked.

Unfortunately, you get a sense of that right at the outset with the battle of the Montagues and Capulets. Everything is there, and it's precise enough, but the level of attack in Davis' 1968 version is exponentially greater. Under Gergiev the whole episode feels a bit cursory, as if they're going through the motions and depicting an image rather than a flesh-and-blood conflict. The brass chords representing the intervention of the Prince are just as detached, and it takes the entry of the semi-chorus to lift the energy, and even then only a little.

Nor are the soloists a uniform gain. Kenneth Tarver is dazzlingly agile for his brief appearance, but Olga Borodina, normally so reliable when it comes to musical dramatics (or should that be histrionics?) seems to be phoning in her performance, as though she is keen to get the whole thing over with. She is a mere shadow of what she was on Davis' 1996 Vienna recording (review), and her pitching isn't always accurate, either, sometimes attacking from below the note in the Strophes. Evgeny Nikitin is gravelly (and undeniably Slavic) as Father Laurence, but at least he is characterful.

Things improve when the singing stops. The violins manage a beautifully dreamy line for Roméo seul, and Capulet's ball moves with some heft, even if its slight lumbering quality is rather closer to pagan Russian than to France or Italy. The Love Scene opens with some beautifully atmospheric strings (let down by a chorus who sound unaccountably strangulated when they first enter), and the wind line representing Juliet is appropriately febrile, though the cello line representing Romeo sounds a little strained to my ears. The Queen Mab scherzo is light on its feet, and I enjoyed the calls of the horns and the tinkling of the bells in the Trio. The strings retain that stunned, vacant feel for Juliet's funeral cortège, and the chorus sing well.

The most successful movement is Romeo in the Capulets' tomb. The overtly programmatic scenario summons the best out of Gergiev, and the orchestral colour is better than elsewhere. The awed sound of the cor anglais, horn and bassoons is worth hearing, and the clarinet gently stuttering into life is done beautifully. The agitated strings and the subsequent slow dying of both lovers is very well done, as are the excitable fanfares that launch the final scene. The chorus rises to a very effective peroration at the end, and the final pages are very exciting.

But you could get all this done so much better elsewhere, and that’s the perennial problem of this cycle. I can’t image this release appealing to a much wider audience than those who were at the Barbican for the performances. Stick with Colin Davis, either in Vienna or in London in 2000 (review). Even better, perhaps, the great 1968 performance is now available as part of a Berlioz Bargain Box from Phillips. That has stood the test of time, but I can’t imagine this one doing the same.

Simon Thompson

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