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Hyperion Records

LSO0682 - Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

Recording details: November 2008
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: January 2010
Total duration: 138 minutes 2 seconds

'For the LSO to win our prestigious Disc of the Year award is testament to the orchestra's continuing brilliance under Valery Gergiev. Hearing this score 'live' gives this music extra frisson, almost as if we were joining the audience for the performance' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is music in which Gergiev has few peers today ... he brings an epic, symphonic and dramatic integrity to its vast, multifaceted canvas ... his London forces respond to Gergiev’s often hair-raising volatility with some of their most dynamic playing—the death of Tybalt has rarely sounded more coruscating in its raw depiction of Lady Capulet’s grief. Juliet’s early music positively scampers with youthful delicacy and grace, and the love music shimmers with a rapt beauty … the entire performance carries an inevitable tragic momentum’ (The Sunday Times)

'This marvellously dance-infused performance of the complete score by Valery Gergiev and a devilishly on-form LSO is an essential item. Rarely has Prokofiev's score sounded so orchestrally powerful. The LSO brings the passion back to Prokofiev's star-crossed lovers' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Gergiev has courageously taken the complete score out of the ballet theater and into the concert hall, to make the music-drama stand on its own orchestrally as with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty. The live recording is sensational in its realism' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'Der akustisch vorzügliche … Mitschnitt dieser beiden Konzerte unterstreicht eindringlich die historische Dringlichkeit dieser Aktion. Denn trotz 140 Minuten Dauer entpuppt sich das abendfüllende Opus als Feuerwerk kurzweiligster musikalischer Attraktionen, die einen in 52 Szenen Prokofjews unerschöpflichen musikalischen Einfallsreichtum um die Ohren schlagen' (Fono Forum, Germany)

Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has a strong claim to being the greatest ballet. Not only does it contain much of the composer’s finest and most instantly appealing music, it is also considered one of the most exceptional musical realisations of Shakespeare.

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‘A ballet for the Bolshoi has to be done “resplendently”, with velvet costumes’, declared Sergey Prokofiev in early 1934 to a colleague who had proposed a bold scenario on a Soviet contemporary theme, ‘otherwise the public won’t come’. Prokofiev’s characteristically clear-sighted assessment of the situation in the more conservative of Russia’s two leading theatres heralded a new turn in his own work for the Soviet stage. The glory days of his experimental one-act ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris had come to an end with the death of the impresario in 1929; On the Dnieper, a music-first, plot-afterwards concoction for the company of a Diaghilev protégé, Serge Lifar, fell flat three years later.

The homeland which Prokofiev had left behind for the West in 1918, and with which he had begun to make a chequered rapprochement since 1927, began to look more promising. His first Soviet projects in the early 1930s were with a freewheeling film-maker, Alexander Feinzimmer, on the satire Lieutenant Kijé, and, with a distinctly unorthodox theatre director, Alexander Tairov, On Egyptian Nights, a Cleopatra fantasy drawn from Shaw, Shakespeare and Pushkin. Ballet was bound to require a more traditional approach, but that did not necessarily exclude high artistic aims. By 1934, the drive towards reinstating western as well as Russian classics was in full swing, and one of its strongest advocates was Sergey Radlov. The Leningrad director had excellent Shakespearean credentials, including a rather outlandish Othello as well as his Studio Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. It was a literary friend who brought Radlov together with Prokofiev, his old chess opponent, to work on a ballet version of the star-crossed lovers’ tragic tale, scheduled for Leningrad’s flagship State Academic Theatre (Prokofiev still insisted on calling it by the imperial name of Mariinsky, by which it is now known once again).

Radlov wanted at first to keep too much Shakespeare; an early scenario called for 24 scene-changes. While the literary Prokofiev took his time steering his collaborator towards a workable framework, political events overtook the partnership. On 1 December 1934 the party secretary for Leningrad, Sergey Kirov, was assassinated, the pretext for a ‘crackdown on terrorism’ leading to Stalin’s wholesale purges of the entire Soviet administration later in the 1930s. Artistic enterprises in Leningrad shrivelled, the State Academic Theatre took the name of Kirov, and the project passed into the hands of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. During the summer of 1935, Prokofiev worked with astonishing speed on Romeo and Juliet in the peaceful surroundings of the Bolshoi’s country retreat at Polenovo. His clockwork precision was not to be rewarded so quickly. When he played through the completed score that October, opinions were divided, and the conservatives doubted whether the score was innately danceable.

Another, more curious sticking-point at further auditions in early 1936 was the proposed happy ending to the Prokofiev-Radlov scenario – Juliet stirs in the nick of time so that the dancers might have a movement-filled few minutes together – which, of course, had to be changed; but there were other reasons behind the veto, not least Stalin’s increased control over artistic matters and the rapid gear-shift to a socialist-realist cult of personality.

In November 2008, Prokofiev’s score was performed at the Barbican Theatre (London) as it was originally conceived, alongside Mark Morris’s new choreography, made in tandem with Princeton scholar Simon Morrison’s reconstruction from manuscripts in Moscow archives. The original version includes several unfamiliar dances forming a kind of divertissement at the drugged Juliet’s bedside and a passage Prokofiev was later to use as the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony for the tumult that rouses Juliet in the Capulet family vault. Curiously, the rather saccharine reconciliation music ends in the same way as the number we hear to mark Juliet’s suicide, allowing Morris an ambiguous ending.

The only public life that Prokofiev’s ballet enjoyed over the few years following 1936 was in the form of the two concert suites he had put together, with the selected numbers rather differently ordered and in some cases differently orchestrated from what we hear in this recording. A barely-noted premiere took place in Brno at the end of 1938; but the big event was the first Soviet performance, back at the Kirov (Mariinsky), in January 1940. After much justified pessimism over the ballet’s future, Prokofiev had been persuaded to work with the choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky and even to provide a few extra numbers, shearing the others mentioned above. Rehearsals had been far from plain sailing; as before, the dancers complained that the orchestration was inaudibly refined in places, and Galina Ulanova, the outstanding creator of the role of Juliet, was among them. She soon changed her tune. The instant classic that Romeo and Juliet became was not without its ‘improvers’; accepted into the Bolshoi repertoire, it was promptly reorchestrated by the percussionist and remained that way for decades. Now, however, with such unassailable classics as Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for London’s Royal Ballet and a painstaking refreshment of tradition at the Mariinsky Theatre, Romeo and Juliet is back in caring hands. Valery Gergiev’s bold step in taking the full-length score out of the theatre and into the concert hall, attempted with dazzling results with his Mariinsky Orchestra in Edinburgh and with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, gives Prokofiev’s music-drama a licence to stand alone which only Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker have enjoyed before it.

Introduction: Three significant themes insist this is Romeo and Juliet, not Montagues and Capulets. The first one sighs for the ‘misadventur’d piteous overthrows’ Shakespeare has in store for his lovers, artfully taking just a phrase from Tchaikovsky’s celebrated love theme and transforming it. This contrasts with the simple elegance of Juliet the young girl and a preview of requited love floating starry-eyed above muted strings.

Romeo: The curtain rises on Romeo, pensive in the dewy freshness of a Veronese early morning, reaching out for his idealised Rosaline in a wide-ranging clarinet theme; only the three magical chords at the end will survive his acquaintance with true love.

The street awakens; Morning dance; The quarrel; The fight: Civic life stirs to a strutting ditty, memorably transcribed in Prokofiev’s set of piano pieces drawn from the ballet. Its furtive transformation in a lively dance, added in the revision, is vigorously chased by six virile horns. The ensuing dispute between the rival households of Montagues and Capulets is inevitable. Its scoring is edgier, all shrill chords, timpani tattoos and lower strings threatening sul ponticello (near the bridge of the instrument). Anger explodes in a hell-for-leather skirmish with fly-away violins thrice separated by a canon of heavy brass until an alarm bell joins the fray and the Duke of Verona makes an authoritative entry.

The Duke’s command; Interlude: His order – no more fighting on pain of death – twice meets aggression with iron resolve (massive dissonances, daring for Soviet ballet in the mid-1930s) and the olive branch of peace (soft string chords). A pompous Andante introduces a stage band to join the orchestral brass in what sounds like a parody of military might.

Preparations for the ball: The scene changes to preparations for the ball chez Capulet, and textures lighten. More street bustle meets a new, swaying theme for Juliet’s nurse; just a hint of her charge’s idiom suggests that she was young once, too.

Juliet the young girl: The 14-year-old Juliet Capulet’s playfulness is captured in skittish violin scales and wayward woodwind harmonies; her gracious theme is varied from its first appearance in the introduction, and her seriousness takes us by surprise in an unaccompanied flute duet followed by a delicate reverie. A brief concluding phrase for cellos and cor anglais hints at heartache ahead.

Arrival of the guests: Lights blaze on the ballroom as the invitees strut to the strains of a garish, lofty minuet with a placid cornet solo at its heart.

Masks: Three more wayward visitors parade to the glitter of a percussion battery – Romeo, Benvolio and the sardonic Mercutio (cornet, clarinet and oboe solos), concealing their Montague identity. Romeo’s dreamy chords dissolve the mockery.

Dance of the Knights: Pomp and satire give way to violence in the Knights’ Dance, familiar from its title ‘Montagues and Capulets’ in the Second Orchestral Suite. Its striding arpeggios frame the eerie ritual of the suitor Paris’s dance with a reticent Juliet.

Juliet’s variation: One of the additional numbers for Lavrovsky in 1939–40, removed from the original finale. Juliet shrugs off her reluctance with elegant variations on her themes.

Mercutio: The joker in the Montague pack diverts attention with a capricious interplay of energetic comedy and grotesquerie (a pawky solo for bassoon, typical of Prokofiev in sarcastic mode).

Madrigal: Love at first sight between Romeo and Juliet is quick to flare, rising from pure beginnings to the heights of the great love-theme, heard for the first time.

Tybalt recognises Romeo: Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, angrily taking up the Knights’ most brutal gesture, has to be restrained from provoking a quarrel with an unresponsive Romeo.

Gavotte: The party is over, and the scenery is usually changed to an extended version of the third movement (much more succinct in its original context) from Prokofiev’s 1917 masterpiece the ‘Classical’ Symphony.

Balcony scene; Romeo’s variation; Romeo and Juliet’s love dance: Romeo’s enchanted chords now preface a glowing nocturne. A chamber organ solemnises the music of the Madrigal as Juliet returns for a lost token (no balcony, this, in the original scenario) and is surprised by Romeo lurking in the shadows. Their love-dance begins with amorously sighing horns and is briefly interrupted by a leaping variation on Romeo’s ardour – a perhaps unnecessary addition, also taken from the original happy ending in 1939–40, so, of course, nowhere to be found in the number from the First Suite – before passion flows untramelled in a sequence of richly-scored melodies and sinks back to its muted, magical starting-point.

Folk dance; Romeo and Mercutio; Dance of the five couples: It’s time for Prokofiev to give the corps de ballet a lively chance with street festivities: a tarantella folk-dance and a keenly-accented number interrupted by a brass band procession, the two broken up by an exchange between lovestruck Romeo and teasing Mercutio.

Dance with mandolins: Prokofiev follows Tchaikovsky’s genius in selective scoring on his own terms – here there are mandolins and trumpets against pizzicato strings with shrill embroideries from clarinet and piccolo, also taken from the original Act 3 Divertissement. (In an extraordinary television documentary showing a group of inner city children working on a production with dancers of the Royal Ballet, this was the only number to depart from the Kenneth MacMillan choreography and to allow the boys a chance to show off their break-dancing. It worked brilliantly.)

The nurse; The nurse delivers; Juliet’s letter to Romeo: The waddling go-between arrives with a letter for Romeo, airily extending her repertoire of bustles and informing us musically of the sender’s identity.

Romeo at Friar Laurence’s; Juliet at Friar Laurence’s: The goodly friar greets Romeo in his cell, a portrait in dignified lower-range colours with special humanity from the divided violas and cellos. A radiant new flute theme announces Juliet, all in white, and a bittersweet secret wedding follows.

The people continue to make merry; Further public festivities: Lavrovsky in 1939 wanted to extend the crowd-music – perhaps the only weakness in the revision. Prokofiev resorted to perfectly decent cut-and-paste reprises, perhaps the only unnecessary numbers in the ballet.

Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio; Tybalt and Mercutio fight; Death of Mercutio; Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s death; Finale: The street music has put us off our guard for the sudden flaring of now-familiar Capulet aggression as Tybalt goads Mercutio. Romeo pleads for restraint with his themes of new-found grace, but Mercutio’s spirit is up as he gives a dangerous reprise of his party-piece, cut short by a sword-thrust from Tybalt. Shuddering and sharing jokey reminiscences, Mercutio meets a characteristic death. Capulet violence infects Romeo Montague and the next fight is on to a heightened reprise of No 6; this time Tybalt falls, to 15 massive orchestral thuds. His body is raised aloft to the strains of an orchestral funeral march, searing in the unrelieved intensity of the brass counterpoint.

Introduction; Romeo and Juliet; The last farewell: Despite the strategic return of the Duke’s discordant command, warning us that Romeo now faces the death penalty, most of Act Three is chamber-like in its delicacy. Romeo has passed the night in Juliet’s bedroom. The dignified flute theme from Friar Laurence’s cell now heralds the morning lark as the lovers face their sweetly sorrowful parting. Horn and clarinet share a new idea as they mourn the passing of time before first raptures are poetically remembered by the fragile tones of the viola d’amore. Passion flares up again and dies with Romeo’s departure.

The nurse; Juliet refuses to marry Paris: Juliet sees the new arrivals in the room through a mist – the nurse, her parents, Paris with his offer of marriage (solo-string echoes of the Minuet). Her protests mix her old impetuousness with a new, lamenting cello phrase and a tragic version of the once-radiant flute duet; but her father insists, with the usual Capulet threats.

Juliet alone; Interlude; At Friar Laurence’s cell; Interlude; Juliet’s bedroom; Juliet alone: Left to cool down in her bedroom, Juliet can think only of Romeo and a massive orchestral development of the ‘parting’ music marks her decision that she cannot live without him. She visits Friar Laurence, who darkly accepts her predicament and offers her a death-simulating potion. Four constantly repeated rising notes convey its creeping effect and the lowest instruments of the orchestra rear up in a prophecy of Juliet’s death. Tragedy and threats carry another interlude and back in her room, Juliet goes through the motions of accepting Paris (more reprises). Once alone, she takes the potion; the same two chords which followed Mercutio’s death suggest the fatal effect its discovery will have on Romeo.

Aubade; Dance of the young girls with lilies: Two numbers – four in the original 1935 version – divert but sustain the intimate mood. This is a more restrained dance with mandolins and violin obbligato, and a graceful but oddly sad number for girls bringing lilies to the bride-to-be (originally exotic dancers from the Antilles).

At Juliet’s bedside: The nurse enters to waken Juliet, trumpets introduce a note of doubt and the ‘death’ is discovered. High violins play a requiem version of Juliet’s most solemn and transfigured melody.

Juliet’s funeral; Death of Juliet: Prokofiev’s Epilogue in his extensive revision sheds Shakespeare’s multiple incidents at the Capulet vault and brings a harrowing focus to the lovers’ endgame. Juliet’s death-motif, subjected to an ever more forceful, heavily-scored funeral processional, brings with it Romeo’s suicide, and her transfigured theme, sorrowful as she wakes, soars in an accepting apotheosis before she stabs herself and dies in his arms. A lone cor anglais announces that ‘never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ before the last, transfigured chord brings down the curtain.

David Nice © 2009

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