PROKOFIEV:  Romeo and Juliet – the Three Suites – Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Litton – BIS Multichannel SACD-1301, 74:16 ***** [Distr. by Qualiton]:

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet was a path-breaking work in very successfully setting Shakespeare’s play to music with a solid narrative line. The scenario works beautifully, unlike so many complete ballet scores.  The highly expressive music runs for about 150 minutes in the complete ballet, so a number of shortened versions have been popularized. The composer himself wrote three different suites, but organized them according to musical values rather than trying to compress the scenario of the ballet into each suite. Many feel that Prokofiev’s selections from his score were not the correct ones, and that they don’t reflect the huge variety and contrasts of the complete score.  Many conductors playing extracts from the ballet pick from all three of the suites and assemble their ow sequence of movements. That’s what Andrew Litton has done here, but with the added slant of putting the selections in a chronological order to follow the progression of the story properly.

Michael Tilson Thomas, in his l995  recording with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (RCA 09026-68288-2) bypassed the  three suites and assembled his 29 scenes directly from the complete ballet score.  While it generally follows the scenario, there are some adjustments for musical values, such as Juliet’s Funeral coming before the final section of Juliet’s Death. Litton has followed the sense of the story more strictly in his 20 selections from the suites, adhering closely to the order of the music as it appears in the ballet score. American conductor Litton has been the Bergen Philharmonic’s principal conductor since 2003. The Bergen Philharmonic is an excellent orchestra but it’s not the San Francisco Symphony.  However, it gets glorious 5.0 hi-res surround sound from BIS engineers, and all of the San Francisco Symphony stereo recordings made during the four or five-year partnership with RCA Red Seal sound very odd for some reason.  And the 1996 MTT CD was the debut recording of this short-lived series before the SF Symphony was dropped by RCA and the Symphony started their own superb-fidelity SACD series. So the BIS SACD has my vote.

 – John Sunier