Ripping heartstrings to shreds: Gergiev’s new Romeo and Juliet on LSO Live

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

Valery Gergiev/London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)

prokofiev-romeo-gergiev-lsoFollowing his LSO series exploring the symphonies of Mahler, Valery Gergiev returned to more familiar Russian soil last autumn with his Émigré season, presenting music of Russian exiles, the highlights of which were two performances of the complete Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. Gergiev had recorded the ballet previously for Philips, back in 1990 when the Mariinsky Theatre was still known as the Kirov and St Petersburg was still Leningrad. It was his first recording with the orchestra with which he’s been so closely identified over the years and, in retrospect, was quite a tame affair, the orchestral sound soft-edged, lacking the bite one later associated with this team.

What has never been in doubt, however, is Gergiev’s commitment to the complete score rather than the various suites which exist. He’s a man of the theatre and appreciates that even the shortest, most incidental dance in the ballet’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage” can be loaded with significance or provides dramatic contrast to the previous number. Nowhere has this been more evident than in London. Surely nobody in the Royal Festival Hall in June 2004 will forget Gergiev’s spine-tingling account with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a real edge-of-your-seat reading that threatened at times to spiral into hysteria. Last November saw him conduct it at the Barbican, evoking memories of his gripping Prokofiev symphony cycle there, also in 2004. This LSO Live recording emanates from those two concerts, the first of which I attended. It was a quite splendid evening so hopes were high for this release. I was not disappointed.

Comparing this LSO release with his Kirov account, one could be forgiven for thinking that the LSO was the Russian orchestra, such is the passion and energy with which they attack Prokofiev’s score. The brass playing is superb, even in the constricted Barbican acoustic, their snarling depiction of the feuding Montagues and Capulets in the Act 1 quarrel and the angry exchanges when Tybalt recognizes Romeo at the ball having great impact.

The ‘Dance of the Knights’ is taken rather fast, making it more dance-like than imposing, while Gergiev also moves the ‘Balcony Scene’ along more swiftly with the LSO, giving it a more muscular, passionate nature. In one of the minor numbers, the ‘Dance with Mandolins’, the LSO trumpets don their daintiest dancing shoes, with light staccato playing to underpin the oily E flat clarinet playing of Chi-Yu Mo, exemplifying Gergiev’s attention to detail. Indeed, the LSO woodwind team is on fine form throughout, especially Rachel Gough’s eloquent bassoon in Friar Laurence’s entrance.

The duel between Tybalt and Mercutio is well executed in both Gergiev recordings, although he cuts more of a swashbuckling tempo with the Kirov. The LSO brass snarls more, however, in Mercutio’s death throes. Romeo’s revenge is swift and the 15 timpani strokes, accompanied by brass, see Gergiev accelerate with the LSO to heighten the drama, whereas with the Kirov he keeps the beat steady. The funeral march which follows is searing in intensity, shattering the listener at its conclusion.

Another highlight in this new recording is the ‘Interlude’, where Juliet decides she cannot live without Romeo and goes to seek help from Friar Laurence. Gergiev sweeps the listener up in the emotional drama of the moment, relishing the horns’ noble, melodic line.

The LSO powerhouse strings are quite magnificent throughout, nowhere more than in the brief Act 4 scenes for Juliet’s funeral and ballet’s tragic finale; they soar passionately, not so much pulling at your heartstrings as ripping them to shreds.

Other competition includes Mark Ermler’s recording, originally on the Royal Opera House’s own label, licensed through Conifer. His other ballet recordings with the ROH have recently reappeared on Sony, so a reissue of the Prokofiev may be imminent. Ermler’s is another theatrical reading, performed by an orchestra which plays this score several times each season. Listening again to this red-blooded account, one is immediately reminded of the Royal Ballet’s famed Kenneth MacMillan staging. Where Gergiev is slightly stronger is in contrasting different moods. For example, when Juliet takes the potion, he draws out the tension further than Ermler and then cuts in with the most balletic ‘Aubade’, all filigree mandolins and elfin violins. Ermler is certainly worth hearing though, so do look out for it.

The impact achieved by the SACD layer of LSO Live’s release, especially if you listen with surround speakers, is impressive, considering the difficulties recording in the Barbican can entail. The booklet contains a cued synopsis of the drama as well as a history of the ballet, an appreciation of Gergiev’s relationship with Prokofiev’s music and a programme note about the composer himself. For the theatricality of this new account and the tremendously passionate playing, Gergiev’s new version is hard to beat.

Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet; Valery Gergiev/ London Symphony Orchestra  (LSO Livehh  LSO0682)
Valery Gergiev/ Kirov Orchestra, Leningrad (Philips) 432 166-2 (1990)
Mark Ermler/ Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Conifer) ROH 309/10 (1993)

This review first appeared in IRR. 

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