BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette ‒ Soloists/ Valery Gergiev on London Sym. Live SACD & Soloists/Robin Ticciati on Linn CD

by | Nov 17, 2016 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette ‒ Olga Borodina, mezzo-sop. / Kenneth Tarver, tenor / Evgeny Nikitin, bass-bari. / Guildhall School Singers / London Sym. Chorus / London Sym. Orch. / Valery Gergiev ‒ London Symphony Live 2SACD LSO0762 (2 SACDs), 57:06, 33:19 (7/8/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette ‒ Katija Dragojevic, mezzo-sop. / Andrew Staples, tenor / Alastair Miles, bass / Swedish Radio Choir / Swedish Radio Sym. Orch. / Robin Ticciati ‒ Linn CKD 521 (2 CDs), TT: 94:00 (10/14/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Two approaches to a Berlioz classic; one SACD and one CD.

Berlioz’s hybrid masterwork, dubbed by the composer a symphonie dramatique, could be considered an advance on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Like Beethoven’s final symphony, it includes among its forces vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But whereas Beethoven’s work is a symphony with an uncommon choral finale (and some boneheaded commentators still take the composer to task for daring to tinker with the basic tenets of symphonic construction), Berlioz’s conception is more radical, incorporating as it does set pieces that could only be considered orchestral tone poems (before the fact) along with lengthy narrative-dramatic sections delivered by the soloists and orchestra. Perhaps the only genuinely symphonic movement in a classical sense is the Queen Mab Scherzo, which is, given that this is Berlioz and not Beethoven, a highly Quixotic version of the musical form that Beethoven made a fixture of the symphony as we know it.

Understandably, at its debut the work divided critical reaction, though unlike much of Berlioz, it established itself early as a staple of the repertory and has never be sidelined since then. Roméo  et Juliette may not be quite as earthshaking as Beethoven’s Ninth, but in many ways it is just as revolutionary, stretching orchestral technique almost to the breaking point and offering a model that successfully balanced vocal lines against the increasingly burgeoning forces of the nineteenth-century symphony orchestra. Wagner was listening and applied the lessons he’d learned; in fact, some commentators see a direct link between Roméo and Tristan und Isolde.

The genesis of Berlioz’s 1839 work goes back to 1827, when the composer attended a performance of Shakespeare’s play at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. He experienced the work in what modern folks of any learning would consider a bowdlerized version, but the effect was nonetheless electrifying. It had the side effect of introducing Berlioz to his future wife, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (who played Juliet), the catalyst for the Symphonie fantastique.

Like the version of Romeo and Juliet that Berlioz saw performed in Paris, the libretto of Roméo et Juliette is not drawn directly from Shakespeare. The version crafted by Émile Deschamps includes some departures from the original, including an expansion of the scene involving the reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets following the death of the lovers. Since Berlioz’s work is not a music drama but a dramatic symphony, much of the vocal writing concentrates on narration rather than outright drama, hence the large role that the chorus plays.

While there are many virtues in the performance of Valery Gergiev and his London-based performers, the conductor is finally let down by the vocal forces that are such an important component of Berlioz’s conception. On the plus side for me are the orchestral contribution and the recording quality. In the orchestral introduction Combats – Tumulte, Gergiev and his forces are tumultuous, yes, but there is an almost classical order to the proceedings that seems to link Berlioz, as is so important, to the Classical past that he cherished. This is a valid approach even if different from the others I’ve heard.

Elsewhere, I find much to admire in both the orchestral playing and Gergiev’s direction. The great orchestral set pieces, Roméo seul, Scene d’amour, and the famous Scherzo are all very well done. And while there is a certain restraint in the opening number as I’ve indicated, there is a compensating wild abandon toward the end of one of my favorite numbers, Roméo seul. Overall, however, I find there is an ever-so-slight restraint in Gergiev’s approach to this music that fits in with a conception which is coherent: viewing the work as an expansion, albeit a radically Romantic one, of the Beethoven model. If I’m reading things into Gergiev’s interpretation that he didn’t intend, I’m sorry. That’s what I hear, and I’m not in the least unhappy with the result.

The letdown, as I say, occurs with Gergiev’s vocal forces. Olga Borodina has the sort of matronly mezzo voice that I seem consistently to find objectionable, looking over my past reviews. It’s also the kind of voice that doesn’t embrace a great deal of characterization, and she imposes a sort of emotional vacuum in the passages that she sings. Much better is the contribution of tenor Kenneth Tarver, whose singing of the tale of Queen Mab (Scherzetto) is spirited and properly cheeky. On the other hand, bass- baritone of Evgeny Nikitin, singing the part of Friar Laurence, is lacking in force and gravitas. His voice has a slight wobble as well.

The Guildhall Singers, acting as the chamber choir, and the London Symphony Chorus are fine if a trifle restrained in their approach (again, a function of Gergiev’s reading of the score). The recording, set down in the much-maligned Barbican Center, is atmospheric. Heard in person, the acoustics may be the letdown that critics in the press constantly complain of, but just about every recording I’ve heard from the LSO Live engineers manages to capture the best of the hall, and the current recording is no exception. There’s depth to the sound stage without any of the much-complained-about dryness of the acoustic surround. Otherwise, the recording is detailed and quite natural, an excellent job. But as fine sounding a recording as this is, Gergiev’s Roméo is simply outclassed by the competition in one defining area: the solo singing. A pity.

Robin Ticciati is a rising star among English musical figures. And he’s also establishing himself as a Berlioz specialist, maybe in the manner of the late Sir Colin Davis? That remains to be seen, yet Ticciati’s Sinfonie fantastique, also on the Linn label, was almost universally praised by critics as a fresh approach to this classic score. Then the conductor went on to record a well-received version of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, a performance fine enough to grab my attention. And I was not formerly a great fan of Berlioz’s gentle Christmastide offering.

As he did in L’enfance, Ticciati works with the Swedish Radio Orchestra and Chorus, and his past experience with these forces pays off in a performance that’s clearly of a piece. There’s youthful brio in the introductory Combats – Tumulte section that carries on through the remaining numbers, both orchestral and choral. There’s much fine playing and singing throughout, and fortunately, that’s true of the solo singing, so important in this work. Outstanding for me is Swedish mezzo Katija Dragojevic, whose very first utterances shape the bittersweet narrative that she unfolds. It’s a lovely voice and an excellent performance. The other soloists are equally fine, bass Alastair Miles bringing all of the command, mingled with deep regret, that should inform the role of Friar Laurence.

Like Gergiev’s, this is a live recording,  and a very good one, in fact. However, as with most live recording there are some issues of balance. Strangely, the chamber choir seems to be on stage with the soloists, in front of the orchestra. Is that a true representation of the arrangement of performing forces? I doubt it. In general, there is little sense of depth to the recording, which is powerfully close-up. Also, at the end of the piece, when the large chorus and the full orchestral forces hold forth, the sound is a bit congested, something that doesn’t happen in the few studio recordings I’ve listened to (among which my favorite is still Dutoit ‒ Montreal Symphony on Decca). And yet the musical conception and the performance certainly deserve your consideration. I only wish that this grand performance had been recorded in surround sound, a medium that Linn appears to have abandoned, alas! [Like several others…Ed.]

—Lee Passarella

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