BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette Symphony – Prague Festival Orch. and Choir and Soloists/ Carlos Paita – Lodia Music Int. (2 CDs)

BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette Symphony, Op. 17 – Prague Festival Orch. and Choir and Soloists/ Carlos Paita – Lodia Music Int. (2 CDs) 31: 45, 67:10 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

If there exists a cult devoted to Argentine conductor Carlos Paita (b. 1932), then this relatively “mysterious” issue of the Berlioz 1839 Romeo et Juliette Symphony on the defunct Lodia Music label will delight his acolytes. Recorded live at the 1978 Prague Festival in Smetana Hall, this “dramatic symphony” boasts having no soloists identified, only Paita himself. The recording throughout remains quite “close,” especially for the vocal soloists, as the contralto of the Strophes episode demonstrates in her high D. The work, dedicated to Paganini, had the most profound impact on Richard Wagner, both musically and dramatically, and many commentators have pointed out the literal harmonic connections between the love music in Berlioz and the “Tristan” chord and its subsequent modifications and involvement in Wagner’s scheme of leitmotifs. Berlioz, by the way, captured in music not Shakespeare’s original tragedy, but rather a version by actor-producer David Garrick that made its own impression upon Berlioz.

While I have well imbibed classic performances by Toscanini, Monteux, and Munch, as well as the complete orchestral score with Mitropoulos, the Paita throbs with individual touches, particularly the fast, almost hectic tempo that sets forth the polyphonic “combats” and “tumults” that establish the disruptive tone of the Montague-Capulet antagonism in Verona.  The tone-color of the individual instruments, especially the violas and cellos in B Minor, adds a significant eroticism to the progression. Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” scherzetto flies by in whirling vocal and instrumental ensemble, the chorus incisive and alert.  The tragic note then enters with the chorus and low tremolando strings.  And so to Romeo’s musing, alone, that ushers in Partie II as Romeo soon intrudes upon the festivities of the Capulets’ ball.  With the counterpoint of Romeo and the festive gaiety of the ball, Berlioz creates the essential tension of the primal forces, life and death, that compete for spiritual supremacy, even as they pass through an erotic union.  The marvelous frenzy of the fete’s percussion and the climactic tutti achieve an articulate, controlled paroxysm that owes something to Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, Op. 92.

Berlioz himself granted that the orchestra, rather than vocalists, should provide the duets of love and despair, “to give to . . .imagination a latitude that the positive direction of the sung words would not have [granted].”  Berlioz employs B Major as his key of reconciliation, often utilizing the color of the solo oboe as a link to the episodes’ continuity. The string and French horns accompany the “Bon soir!” as the Capulet revelers (in chorus) leave the feast, the music easily reminiscent of Weber’s huntsmen’s chorus from Der Freischuetz. The exquisite night music borrows from Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet in C-sharp Minor for its poignant affect, but the scoring, magical, belongs to Berlioz.  Paita’s cello line, assisted by warbling flutes, melts us with all the fervor of youthful eros. Wagner conceded that his first hearing of the love music reduced him “to a child seated at the hem of Berlioz’s master’s garb.” At moments, the recitativo string line clearly pays homage to Beethoven’s Ninth.  The thrilling ardor of the playing will summon memories of Carlo Maria Giulini and his own mode of musical sincerity.

The Queen Mab Scherzo, based solely on a brief passing reference from Mercutio, proves the most enchanting of all fairy music in Romanticism, dwarfing efforts by Weber, Mendelssohn, and even Beethoven scherzos. The deft lightness of the scoring for strings and winds – listen to the facile violin and harp harmonics – and its realization here in Prague rival my preferred version by Mitropoulos. The latter part of the Scherzo imitates elements from the Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens.

David Garrick’s version of the play (Act V) includes a funeral procession for the drugged but living Juliet, and she will awaken to find Romeo still alive. Once more, homage to Beethoven will occur when Romeo invokes her to respond to him in C-sharp Minor. The Offertory from the Op. 5 Requiem provides yet another model for this lugubrious processional episode. Under the heading “Desespoir,” this music belongs to the most literal of all program music, from the agitato of Romeo’s rush to the tomb to his invocation to his taking of the fatal poison. Juliet awakens, and the lovers share one last moment of fatal bliss, then Romeo expires whilst Juliet looks upon her fallen lover, a clear sign to Wagner for Isolde’s love-death.  The brass effects Paita elicits will, for many, warrant the price of admission.

A baritone intones Friar Laurence’s extended reconciliation-scene at the cemetery, but only after a cyclic recollection of the opening families’ strife. “Silence, malheueux!” quiets the fracas, only to proceed to a summary of tragic love – “Pauvres enfants que je pleure” –  in lachrymose colors. The music surges forth in the manner of a dramatic cantata, a responsory between principals in the grand manner as the Friar’s sermon achieves a glowing apotheosis. For never was there a tale of more woe…

Perhaps the best Berlioz you will hear for some time, this “sleeper” album from Paita’s own label.

—Gary Lemco

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