Scottish National Orchestra
Neeme Járvi, conductor
Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has never sounded better than in these 24-bit/96kHz remasterings of the recordings of Suites 1 thru 3, originally made for Chandos by Brian and Ralph Couzens between December 1984 and August 1986. The Scottish National Orchestra was in fine mettle on all these occasions, and Neeme Járvi got the most out of the composer’s music, bringing out the abundant warmth, intimacy and lyrical beauty in these scores and giving the grotesque, mechanistic and violent elements no more than their just due. The present remasterings of these superb performances bring out their finer details in even clearer perspective than did the originals.
As is well known, the management of the Kirov Ballet rejected Prokofiev’s masterpiece when he presented it to them in 1935 after a two years’ labor. The reasons, some of which may have been political, have never been made clear although the sheer effort and expense needed to stage the full three-act ballet may have been a deterrent. At this time, one-act ballets were the rule. Prokofiev was moving into an arena in which his only serious competitor had been dead some forty years, for the ghost of Peter Illich Tchaikovsky loomed large over the scene. The Bolshoi, to whom he next offered the score, added insult to injury, rejecting the composer’s music as “undanceable.” Prokofiev was not in the least discouraged. Endowed with a competitive instinct worthy of any capitalist nation, he soon produced not one, but two stunning suites in 1936, using the symphony hall to stimulate a public demand for his music that prepared its eventual triumph in the ballet theatre. And he came out with a third suite to coincide with its Bolshoi premiere in 1946. The work has been an accepted modern classic ever since.
But let’s not be too blithely accepting. How can we account for the work’s enduring popularity, for the undeniable hold it has on us as listeners? It’s easy enough to point to the sensual beauty of the famous Balcony Scene (Andante amoroso, Suite 1) and the recapitulation of its predominant mood, tinged with sadness and regret, in “Romeo and Juliet before Parting” (Andante – Adagio, Suite 2). This is “love music” at its most overwhelming and all encompassing, so full that we do not realize at first the degree to which the burden of the orchestration is borne solely by the strings. And how lush that sound is, how pregnant with shades of feeling and undertones of tragedy! We hear distant echoes of the music from both these great scenes in the final tragic moments of the ballet, as memories of lost happiness in the death of Romeo, whose dying heartbeats are captured in soft, low pizzicato (Suite 2) and Juliet, her resolution emboldened by the conviction that she will be reunited by death with her beloved (Suite 3).
And here we get to the heart of the matter, the psychological realism that makes the music of most ballets pale in comparison. Was there ever a more insightful portrait of a heroine than “Juliet the Young Girl” (Vivace, Suite 2), the fourteen year old dashing hurriedly back and forth, frightened even as she is compelled by inner drives and desires toward a destiny that she cannot comprehend, poised on the brink of adulthood and a happiness that we know will be tragically short lived?
In” Death of Tybalt” (Preciptiato, Suite 1) the shock waves of grief and alarm that accompany the climax of the scene are the perfect corollary for this particular moment, the turning point in a story that has played like a comedy up to now, but will henceforth hurtle inexorably towards tragedy. Or consider the way in which Prokofiev differentiates between the spontaneous gaiety of the street dances of the common folk in Suites 1 and 2 and the cold formality and cheerlessness of the dances (Minuet, Masks) at the House of the Capulets. Had Romeo comprehended the menacing tone beneath their cool austerity, he he would probably have taken to his heels – and left us without a story!