PROKOFIEFF: Romeo and Juliet – Complete Ballet – Sym. Orch. of the State Academic Bolshoi Th./ Gennady Rozhdestvensky – Pristine Audio

PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet – Complete Ballet, Op. 67 – Symphony Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theater/ Gennady Rozhdestvensky – Pristine Audio (ambient stereo) PASC 424 (2 discs) TT: 2:22:39 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky (b. 1931) recorded the first complete Romeo and Juliet of Sergei Prokofiev in 1959 for Melodiya, pacing his performance much in the style of the dance, rather than having conceived the music for the concert hall, as do the various suites we know from recordings by Abbado, Mitropoulos, Munch, and the composer himself. Prokofiev treats this Shakespearean tragedy with the same thematic rigor as does Wagner his own librettos, with a series of leitmotifs that become clearly recognizable as they operate singularly and in concert with other themes. Rozhdestvensky has always had a penchant for speedy tempos, and there will be moments when we balk at the loss of nuances and phrase inflections. But the colossal scope of the concept never fails to grip our imagination, and the “authentic” Russian coloring of the score mesmerizes from the very first. The opening quarrel scene, for instance, conveys martial flurries, youthful mischief, and imminent tragedy simultaneously. The agony of The Duke’s Order – the same music utilized for the Act III Introduction – has never had a more wrenching realization than that by Mitropoulos – who tied this music to the Dance of the Knights – but Rozhdestvensky’s strings manage a visceral attack.

The level of virtuosity shines in Juliet the Young Girl, especially as engineer Andrew Rose, for his “Soviet Series” has “rounded” the often harshly thin violin tone – and added ambient stereophonic effect – onto the original mono Melodiya LPs. Grace and pageantry permeate the score, certainly with The Arrival of the Guests, and later, beset by mortality, in the deaths of the principals Mercutio, Tybalt, and our ill-fated lovers.  Somewhat against his natural grain, Rozhdestvensky takes the Dance of the Maids with Lilies at adjusted half tempo, which makes for a piquant effect. Masques, on the other hand, moves even more quickly than Mitropoulos takes it, perhaps then adding to the caprice – and incipient romantic agony – of the occasion.  The earthy humor intrinsic to Mercutio’s character, too, has its grim undercurrent, sharing a rhythmic thrust with the equally volatile Tybalt, whose music assumes a modal variation of the Knights’ music. The lyrical interludes, such as the Madrigal, already throb with the transcendent passion that so transforms Romeo’s formerly “flighty” nature into another incarnation of the Tristan myth. Rozhdestvensky milks the Balcony Scene and ensuing Romeo’s Variation and Love Dance with “religious” tenderness, the score’s even calling for the pipe organ to set the tone for the tragic mystery.

With Act II, the energy of the score itself increases in momentum, and Rozhdestvensky’s frisky, alert rendition of the Dance of the Five Couples reflects this youthful, even raucous, buoyancy. The immediate change in texture with Dance with the Mandolins makes a fanciful juxtaposition. The lyrico-mystical quality of the flute and strings in Juliet at Friar Laurence had been spliced to the Mitropoulos love-scene. Here, the music proceeds in brass colors that announce the somber passion of Juliet’s ardor for Romeo. The music for the fatal Tybalt Encounters Mercutio and Tybalt Fights Mercutio scenes rivals the Flaming Angel Symphony No. 3 scoring for penetrating power.  An unnatural break occurs in continuity to Mercutio’s Death, but “it will serve.” Romeo’s Resolve to Avenge Mercutio proffers a chromatic contrapunctus worthy of Bach that tops off with a brilliant prestissimo from the strings and battery. Tybalt’s throbbing death virtually brings the whole Renaissance world toppling on Romeo’s head.

Act III provides the tragic denouement. Recall Mercutio’s dying curse, “A plague upon both your houses” has its realization in the plague that prevents Friar John from delivering the saving message of Juliet’s sleeping – and not lethal – drug to Romeo. The Leave Taking Before Parting, with its wonderful viola and flute parts, offers some of the most beautiful music in the ballet, which Prokofiev well knew, including it in his Op. 75 Scenes piano reduction. The imitation of mandolins for the Morning Serenade creates an unbearable irony, especially as the brass resonate with dark annunciation. Some will disparage Rozhdestvensky’s choice of tempo for Juliet’s Funeral, slowed to resemble the Berlioz version of the tragedy, insofar as that music itself adumbrates Tristan.  But the paroxysms of love-death convince this auditor. The Epilogue takes the camera of our inner eye and ear to a transcendent height, an apotheosis reminding us there never was “a tale of more woe.” [Look for a coming review of a new Blu-ray of the complete ballet…Ed.]

Highly recommended, whatever format you select!

—Gary Lemco

on this article to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION!

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