Despite an askew assemblage, the Romantic ethos of these scores has exemplary conductors at their respective helms.

Romeo & Juliet = TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet – Overture Fantasy in b minor; BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette Symphonie, Op. 17: four excerpts; PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet Ballet – Suite 2, Op. 64b – Moscow Philharmonic Orch./ Kyrill Kondrashin (Tchaikovsky)/ Choir and London Sym. Orch./ Pierre Monteux (Berlioz)/ Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky (Prokofiev) – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 350 116, 79:20 (2/5/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Praga assembles various musical responses to the 1595 Shakespeare play of the two star-crossed lovers of Verona, utilizing first Kyrill Kondrashin’s 7 January 1967 live performance from Moscow of the 1869 Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky. Kondrashin (1914-1981) assumed major international renown through his collaboration on the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto on RCA with Van Cliburn in 1958. His reading of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy enjoys a broad canvas, rife with drama and sumptuous, erotic longing. The Moscow Philharmonic strings, winds, and brass achieve lofty heights without losing the manic drive that often marks a Kondrashin realization. The reading offers a fine balance between the too-often rushed approaches of some conductors who want virtuosity to reign, and the overly sentimental (think: Bernstein and Celibidache) elongation of the score to something like twenty-five minutes of palpitating hearts.

The Pierre Monteux-selected excerpts from his June 1962 inscription for Westminster of the Berlioz 1839 Romeo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony makes for a musical curio despite the innately lofty, aristocratic conception of the performance. Praga splices the opening scene – the street brawl that incites the Prince to ban all further public outbursts by the two warring families – to the theme of Romeo’s lone musing prior to his entry into the Capulets’ festive masquerade. Those with sharp ears will detect the thematic kernels here – and in the ardent love scene – for another composer’s conception of passionate love and death: Richard Wagner, for his Tristan und Isolde. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) embarked upon a series of European recording venues late in his career, and this Berlioz project of the complete score ranks among the greats, that include readings by Toscanini, Davis, and Munch. Dimitri Mitropoulos did record the complete orchestral score – sans vocal parts – for CBS, as ML 4632. Given the orchestral brilliance of that reading – especially of the Queen Mab Scherzo – Praga might have resurrected selections from Mitropoulos rather than gather in the Monteux sequence before the lovers’ parting – a section that conforms to Berlioz’s special edition of the play, conceived as a vehicle for his inamorata Smithson – which here seems like a dramatic non sequitur.

The epic scope of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet for the Kirov Ballet ranks as the greatest of danced renditions of the tragic tale. Selecting a mere four sections from the ballet – The Montagues and the Capulets; Juliet the young girl; Before parting; Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb – condenses the lyric aspect of Prokofiev’s gifts to a minimum, especially if we wished to compare balcony scenes for their respective erotic passion. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) applies his patented, colossal and homogeneous brush strokes, eliciting from the Leningrad Philharmonic (30 December 1981) their well-honed fury. The opening dissonances capture the romantic agony of the tale, followed by the martial spirit that emanates – particularly from Tybalt – that wreaks destruction on all parties. The remastered, surround-sound effects thrust the wicked brass parts forward with startling results. As limpidly tender as he can be ferocious, Mravinsky imparts a disarming characterization of Juliet, and two powerfully wrought parting scenes – living and dead – truly evoke “sweet sorrow.” The Leningrad’s flute principal has my admiration.

A mixed-bag as a concept, the individual performances transcend the disc’s mere “market” strategy.

—Gary Lemco