Prokofiev - Romeo and Juliet

A whole evening’s music-making with an enormous orchestra can only be a rare undertaking in the concert hall. When Gergiev and the LSO gave just two performances of Prokofiev’s complete ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in London, both sold out. LSO Live was there to document them.

The great virtue of performing the complete ballet music of Romeo and Juliet, as opposed to the concert suite, is having the space for the original narrative.  This is a classic tale with lots of vignettes and dramatic twists.  But it has to be someone with conviction telling the story, and maintaining a thread throughout ninety minutes of music, much of it episodic.  There are some set pieces, ‘numbers’, and some titanic climaxes (such as the end of the second act when Tybalt receives his comeuppance), but continuity, pacing and drama are everything.

The concerts at the Barbican were a masterclass in how to relate a story without  having the dancers to act it.  As the strings set the scene at the beginning of Act I, those present in the concert hall would have seen two arms sculpting sound from large forces.  The sonority, the ebb and flow of phrases in the introduction, are wonderfully expressive.  As the performance unfolds and other instruments unleashed, you realise the music itself is so strongly characterised as to require neither ballet dancers nor props.

Prokofiev had an extraordinarily detailed vision of the orchestra.  The instrumentation is constantly emboldened to provide unusual inflexions and colours to melodic lines. Not only is the standard symphony orchestra exploited to the full in Prokofiev’s orchestration, other instruments are brought in to bump up the colour – an on-stage band, for example.  In Act II, the mandolin players are an unusual addition.

The strongest reaction of the evening in the concert hall came after the shatteringly powerful climax to Act II, when Romeo has felled the bloodthirsty Tybalt with his sword.  By the end of Act III, when the two lovers have finally met their end in the tomb, everyone was wrung out and wild applause for the musicians was just not possible. 

LSO Live decided early on that it wasn’t going to keep the applause from its recordings – repeated listening would be a bit tiresome with it in – but the hope is always that an outstanding performance captured on disc will make you wish you had been there to share the excitement.  This is one such.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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