Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, highlights (CD review)

Andrew Mogrelia, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.572928.

When Russian pianist, conductor, and composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) first presented his now-popular ballet Romeo and Juliet to the Bolshoi Ballet in 1935, they promptly pronounced it “undanceable.” Soon after, the public heard suites from the ballet, but they did not get to see it performed until 1938, the version we hear nowadays usually the revised 1940 score. Maestro Andrew Mogrelia and the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra recorded the full ballet in the mid Nineties for Naxos, originally issued in a two-disc set, and what we have here is a generous selection of highlights on a single disc.

Mogrelia gives us an atmospheric account of the score rather than an exciting, thrilling, or passionate one, with rather more odd tempo changes than I’d prefer between and within individual movements. Often, he favors a slower, more deliberate pace than some other conductors, which I’m sure dancers would prefer.

It worried me at first that the opening scenes in Verona's streets were a little too tame to catch fire, foreshadowing a degree of banality to come; but by the time of the Capulet party, things pick up considerably. Mogrelia is at his best, though, in the lyrical dance sequences and in the smaller, more intimate love scenes, where he builds the various tensions unerringly.

Since Prokofiev intended his score be highly graphic, taking us carefully through Shakespeare’s play practically scene by scene, the music is open to a wide range of interpretation. Befitting Shakespearean tragedy, with Mogrelia we get more emotion in the slower segments, yet with not always the passion or impulsive youthfulness the music demands. Even though Mogrelia reaches out and touches our heart at times, he leaves out a little of the melodrama.

So, while Mogrelia tends to tame the more boisterous parts of the music, he handles the more lyrical, romantic, and tragic sequences with a delicate hand. Maybe “The Duel” and “The Death of Mercutio” could be more exciting, but “The Young Juliet” at the beginning and “Juliet’s Death” at the end are most graceful and affecting.

The booklet notes describe the tracks pretty well, each segment clearly labeled to summarize the action of the plot. Not that Prokofiev’s work needs much explanation, the music already being so colorfully descriptive. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play should have no trouble following the plot.

Some people may disagree with the choice of highlights Naxos have assembled, and if that’s the case, one can always buy the complete ballet and program one’s own selections. Or perhaps a recording of the two ballet suites would be more to one’s liking. In any case, my own preferences in this music remain the complete recordings by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI), Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca), and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca).

Naxos recorded the complete ballet at the Concert Hall of Ukrainian Radio in 1994 and released this current set of highlights in 2012. The audio is quite nice, one of Naxos’s best-sounding recordings. It’s big and full, and a little close, with a wide stereo spread and a moderately good sense of depth. Midrange clarity and transient response are first-rate, and bass, though modest, is effective. The treble appears well extended, although the upper strings sound just a tad forward. It’s true that occasionally one notices that sections of the orchestra seem compartmentalized, yet it’s hardly anything of concern. It’s quite enjoyable sound.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa