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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 Complete ballet in four acts (1935-36; revised: 1939) [144:14]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 2015, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA
NAXOS 8.573534-35 [75:03 + 69:11]

I followed Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev symphony cycle for Naxos with great interest and found much to admire in the recordings. The only instalment that passed me by was the Third symphony; indeed, I don’t believe we have reviewed it here (8.573452). However, I heard the others: The First and Second symphonies (review); the Fourth in its revised version, Op 112 (review); the Fifth (review); the Sixth (review); and the Seventh (review). Those recordings were all made with the other orchestra of which Ms Alsop is Music Director: the São Paolo Symphony. However, it’s with the Baltimore Symphony that she’s set down Prokofiev’s greatest ballet.

This is a score that I’ve loved ever since I bought André Previn’s complete LSO recording on LP more years ago than I care to remember. That remains a personal favourite, not least for its warmth, even though the recording, as transferred to CD, now shows its age a bit. The superbly incisive Maazel recording for Decca introduced me to a rather different but no less valid approach to the score. Marin Alsop steers something of a middle way in her performance: she is very good in the tender and romantic music associated with the two lovers and she also brings out well the drama of the dispute between the Montagues and Capulets and the searing emotions as the tragedy reaches its dénouement.

Actually, it’s a while since I listened to the complete ballet – the last time was when I reviewed Vasily Petrenko’s very good Oslo Philharmonic account. As I listened to Marin Alsop’s traversal of the score, I was reminded forcefully how much really fine music it contains that was not included in any of the three suites that Prokofiev extracted. He made the first two suites in 1936 when it was uncertain when – or if – the full ballet would be staged. It’s a jolly good thing that we have those suites, and the later one, since they served to make the music much more accessible. However, although all the ‘plums’ and all the main musical material are included in the suites it’s only when you hear the full score that the thematic cross references and the strong narrative line truly come across.

Those who have heard Marin Alsop in any of the composer’s symphonies will know that she has a strong empathy with Prokofiev’s music and that empathy is on display in spades here. True, there were very occasional moments where, thinking back to Previn or Maazel, I wondered about a tempo selection but such instances were few and far between and even then, I found the overall trajectory of the performance carried the day.

The first two Acts contain quite a number of short ensemble dances which don’t, in the main, advance the narrative but which add to the spectacle and convey the ambience of the city of Verona. These are all very well done in this performance; the music is put over colourfully and with the necessary vitality. However, most people will focus on the big dramatic episodes in the ballet. Marin Alsop brings out the menace in the music that illustrates what is to be the fatal encounter between Mercutio and Tybalt in Act II. The fight between them is vividly portrayed, as is the subsequent mortal combat between Romeo and Tybalt. The powerful, baleful funeral cortège for Tybalt may not quite match the shattering power of Maazel’s Clevelanders but it’s still potently realised here and Alsop paces the music ideally.

When it comes to portraying the two lovers Alsop is on top of her game. When the couple meet at Friar Laurence’s cell and are married by him (Act II) the scene is played gently and tenderly. Later, however, in Act III ‘Romeo bids Juliet farewell’ is full of aching poignancy. That’s as nothing, though, compared to the intensity of Romeo’s grief at witnessing Juliet’s funeral at the start of the short fourth Act. Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony project this grief-stricken episode very strongly. Then, when Juliet wakes from her drugged slumber and finds the lifeless body of Romeo beside her the aching sadness in Prokofiev’s music really comes out. In these passages the Baltimore violins really dig deep emotionally. Perhaps they’re not quite as searingly intense as the Cleveland violins are for Maazel but their performance still wrenches at the heart strings. As the ballet comes to its subdued tragic ending, we may give thanks that Prokofiev and his collaborators ditched the original scenario which, with an eye to the Soviet aesthetics of the time, proposed a happy ending in which Friar Laurence revived the couple in time and reunited them, in happiness, with their families. Would Prokofiev have produced comparably eloquent and moving music for such a scenario and would we today regard his ballet as one of the great masterpieces of the ballet repertoire? Surely the answer to both those questions is a resounding ‘no’.

I thoroughly enjoyed Marin Alsop’s account of Romeo and Juliet which does full justice to Prokofiev’s inspired score. The Baltimore Symphony is with her all the way, playing marvellously. Tim Handley has produced and engineered the recording and he’s done a very good job. The sound has an excellent dynamic range – vital in this music – and you can hear all the details of Prokofiev’s colourful and inventive orchestration. The documentation consists of an excellent introductory note by Daniel Jaffé who has also contributed a first-rate track-by-track synopsis which makes it very easy indeed to follow the action. Indeed, his documentation is a model of its kind.

John Quinn

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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