Russian Ballet Suites
CD Number: See above
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet contains so much excellent music that many fans will want to avail themselves of the complete score, available in several 2-CD recordings. For anything less, the possibilities are enormously varied. The composer himself created two suites, of seven numbers each, very soon after the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets rejected the "undanceable" score in 1935, and a third suite of six numbers in 1946. These, especially the first two, have become staples of the concert hall repertoire, though it is even more common, in live performance and on CD, for conductors to make their own arrangement of anywhere from three to a dozen selections, usually following the story of the young lovers as the ballet tells it. Prokofiev's suites are quite non-chronological, the pieces seemingly chosen for contrasting moods and rhythms, with a "big" number to conclude each: "Death of Tybalt" at the end of Suite No. 1, "Romeo at Juliet's Grave" for No. 2, and the rather gentler "Death of Juliet" (and the end of the ballet) for No. 3.
Suites 1 and 2 used to fill out an LP generously, providing about an hour's worth of music, while the addition of the Third Suite nicely fills up a CD with about 75 to 78 minutes. Still, few recordings have appeared of the three suites together, perhaps because of the non-chronological order of the 20 selections. Thus the recent recording with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati is of special interest, especially because Prokofiev's sensationally brilliant orchestrations deserve a surround sound treatment.
I'm sorry to say that I found Järvi's renditions quite OK but nothing to get very excited about. (I must add that I listened to the Super Audio CD on standard stereo equipment, and found the sound warm and reasonably well balanced but otherwise not especially remarkable.) The Cincinnati Symphony certainly plays well, with lovely woodwind sounds in the more delicate passages and reasonable grandeur in the more spectacular moments. It may be a little unkind to compare Järvi's performance with that of his father Neeme, but the fact is that the esteemed Estonian conductor also recorded the three suites, for Chandos in the mid-1980s, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (the Third originally a filler for a recording of the Sinfonia Concertante for Cello, and then released in the early ‘90s with Suites 1 and 2). Neeme offers a rhythmic incisiveness I found less of in Paavo's recording — compare, for example, the perky march, labeled "Masks," in Suite 1, which isn't quite uplifting enough in Cincinnati. Maybe too, Neeme was steeped enough in the score to play around with it a little or to take risks. For example, the Scottish strings dig into the headlong rush of the swordfighting just before the death of Tybalt with thrilling abandon; and the pompous march of the "Montagues and Capulets" (Suite 2) is taken at a daringly slow pace, more a menacing army on the march than haughty aristocrats at a ball. (Paavo, though taking a more plausible tempo — at 5:16, almost a minute shorter than his father — seems slack in comparison, though pleasingly lyrical in the middle section.) However, the early digital sound of the Chandos recording is a bit harsh, giving a brittle sound to the orchestra; and Neeme is far too restrained in the grand emotional duos of the lovers, especially the glorious climaxes of "Romeo and Juliet" (Suite 1) and Romeo's discovery of the apparently dead Juliet (Suite 2).
For an overall more satisfying performance than either Järvi provides, one could turn to Mstislav Rostropovich's 1983 recording of the first two suites with the National Sympony. DG's early digital sound is conspicuously better than Chandos' (I listened to the LP), and more to the point, the grand climaxes of the lovers' tale are overwhelmingly passionate. Indeed, "Romeo at the Grave of Juliet" is so astoundingly powerful that the music of the Third Suite, other than its finale, would be too anticlimactic to follow. Incidentally, Rostropovich takes a rather slow tempo himself for the pomp of the "Montagues and Capulets," though not nearly so slow as Neeme Järvi; the Russian maestro brings out a striking grotesquerie, just as he gives personality to each number — apparently following the recommendations of the composer himself, according to the liner notes.
For collectors content with Suite No. 1 alone, there is another SACD recording available, with Alexander Vedernikov and the Russian National Orchestra on a PentaTone Classics CD. (Again I listened to it in stereo mode, in which the sound is more brilliant than Telarc's.) The rhythms have a bit more spring in them than on Paavo Järvi's recording; the melodies soar a bit more; harmonies seem more piquant. But the great pas de deux ("Romeo and Juliet") seems anemic compared to the versions of Rostropovich and a number of other interpreters, though perhaps suitable for an elegant, almost chaste performance at a ballet house.
Vedernikov, the young Music Director of the Bolshoi Theatre, fills out his disc with other major ballet suites in the modern Russian tradition. From Aram Khachaturian's Spartacus he offers four numbers, including another great pas de deux, that of Spartacus and Phrygia — the one with the melody that sounds like the beginning of "Stormy Weather." Here, however, Vedernikov is almost shockingly slack — no tension, no exotic yearnings. In the biggest restatement of the theme, the solo trumpet floats comfortably rather than soars dramatically above the orchestral volume. The other selections don't fare much better. (For the "real thing," check out the composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a 1962 performance now on a disc in Decca's Legends series.) The disc is rounded off with a suite from Shostakovich's The Bolt, a 1931 ballet about "industrial sabotage." The music has Shostakovich's distinctive sardonic wit, but even after a number of hearings it seems far less inspired than the suite from the composer's most famous ballet, The Age of Gold, so even Vedernikov's well-played traversal is not very memorable.
Complete Suites from the Ballet Romeo and Juliet:
Sound: (stereo) [SACD: —Ed.]
Russian Ballet Suites:
Sound: (stereo) [SACD: 4.5—Ed.]