Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 Complete ballet in four acts (1935-36; revised: 1939) [2:24:14]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 2015, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA
NAXOS 8.573534-35 [2 CDs: 144:14]
Not surprisingly, Marin Alsop's reading here essentially features a multi-pronged approach, offering a sumptuous and lush rendering of the many lyrical themes, as well as an emotionally charged take on the tragic music and a spirited and colourful view of the many playful and festive moments in the ballet. That said, it is fair to say she tends to favor the lush side of things, allowing the post-Romantic Prokofiev, the tune-smith who could rival Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky in long-lined beautiful melodies, to shine through much of the time. Her tempos are generally moderate and her deft grasp of Prokofiev's protean style is uncannily consistent, if a trifle restrained. Thus, while she effectively captures the many facets of this most tragic of ballets, she imparts a less febrile, less driven character to the emotional pitch of the lyrical music. The love music, then, is typically more warm and gorgeous than passionate and animated. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Alsop makes a strong case for her approach.
Take her opening, for instance: the six-note motif that launches the ballet and appears throughout in various guises, comes on warmly and serenely—and quite convincingly—and the love music in Act I’s Balcony Scene, Romeo’s Variation and Love Dance (Tracks 19, 20 & 21, respectively) is taken rather slowly, yielding a lovely voluptuousness, with strings soaring utterly to the heavens and brass blending in rather than resonating. The Friar Laurence music from the Second Act opening numbers (Disc 2) is beautiful and serene, with splendid playing by the bassoon and strings. All these numbers are quite ravishing and very effective within the context of the ballet.
The festive and playful elements in the score emerge with plenty of colour, despite generally moderate tempos: Act I’s Morning Dance (track 4) might lack a bit of energy but is convincing still, and the Young Juliet (track 10) is right on target, with the right balance of vigour and elegant frolicking. Alsop is very effective in conveying the darker and nastier side of the score: The Quarrel (track 5), The Fight (track 6) and especially the famous Dance of the Knights (track 13), all from Act 1, come on with urgency and energy in the case of the first two and with weight and menace in the latter number.
The tragic elements in this score can present the greatest challenge to conductors, but Alsop handles them well, if not with the last ounce of desperation and urgency: Act IV’s Juliet’s Funeral (track 24) features a true sense of tragedy and of darkness and loss but, for once, Alsop’s tempo may be a bit on the pushy side, as the big brass statement of the “death theme” could be more emphatic and weightier. But there are no complaints about the final number, Juliet’s Death, as the music can melt your emotions and draw tears.
Nothing here is ever off the mark by much, and the playing by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is top notch throughout. Alsop's success with this score is not surprising, though: her recent traversal of the complete Prokofiev symphonies with her other major orchestra, the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, also on Naxos, was quite successful, because she managed to effectively capture that vast canvas of Prokofiev's intellectual, emotional and stylistic worlds.
I should mention that this is the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet, containing all fifty-two numbers, like the CD versions by Maazel, Previn, Ozawa, Petrenko, Gergiev (twice; once on video), Ermler and other notable conductors. In live performances in the theatre the work is usually cut by the stage director, sometimes heavily, apparently in the belief that he or she can improve on this great masterpiece. Thus, most video versions of this work aren't complete and often are further sabotaged by having certain numbers shuffled around, also the result of the stage director's meddling.
Anyway, back to the issue at hand… I would say that as top choices on CD Alsop’s Romeo and Juliet ranks with the very excellent but disparate versions by Maazel (Decca) and Previn (EMI/Warner Classics), the latter being close to Alsop in his approach. Actually the Ozawa (DG) and Gergiev (LSO Live) are also very fine. Gergiev’s earlier recording on Philips is not quite as good and I haven’t seen/heard his recent Mariinsky video performance of the ballet, which appears to be complete. In the end, I would give a slight edge to Alsop over her rivals on CD because her sound reproduction is first rate, while the Maazel and Previn efforts are older and feature somewhat dated engineering. Is Cinderella next for Alsop? It would seem, at some point in the near future, that that will likely happen. As for this Romeo—I highly recommend it.