Suite from Romeo and Juliet
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor
The city of Chicago had privileged connections with Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev. It was in Chicago that many American premieres of Prokoﬁev’s works took place, starting from the Piano Concerto no. 1 and the Scythian Suite (December 1918), with the composer as solo pianist and as conductor respectively and it was again in Chicago that the opera The Love of the Three Oranges, commissioned by the conductor of the Chicago Opera Cleofonte Campanini, premiered in 1919. A couples of years later, in 1921, it was the turn of the Piano Concerto no. 3 to premiere in the “Windy City”, under Friedrich Stock’s conduction, and finally in January 1937 Prokofiev returned to Chicago to conduct a selection from his recently composed ballet Romeo and Juliet, which was to receive there its American premiere.
Nothing seems more natural, then, that conductor Riccardo Muti records a Suite from Romeo and Juliet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble of which he currently is music director. The performance was live recorded in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, in October 2013 and is a fine one, though in a certain sense it has some rather unexpected features. First of all, Riccardo Muti’s conduction cannot be considered warm nor sympathetic, and, on the contrary, he seems more concerned with technical aspects as precision, clarity of sound and an even pedantic rendition of the slightest detail, with pragmatism and coscientiousness, but that is not actually what really attracts a listener, especially in a work that was originally a ballet, moreover inspired by the most romantic of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
It is only with an effort that the first impression of the conductor’s aloofness can be put aside, but that effort deserves to be done. In this Romeo and Juliet there are not many nuances and colours, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece, though more similar to an engraving that to a painting.
I just wrote “an engraving”, but actually this Suite is a series of ten engravings. Probably due to the fact that this is a selection and not the complete performance of Romeo and Juliet, Muti does not liger on the definition of an indissoluble guiding thread and prefers to stress the character of the single piece. His obsessive attention for details is what allows him to create some of the most vivid sketches. In the Montagues and Capulets, the music is threatening and severe and immediately set the atmosphere of rivalry and hate between the two families. This martial character returns in the Death of Tybald, a nervous piece that Muti performs with the catastrophe clear in his mind.
The portrait of Juliet the Young Girl is, on the contrary, delightful and perky and the traits of the young heroine are shown up by the flute. The same aspects return in the refined Madrigal and the lively Minuet, but in the Masks there is something more complex. This is probably only my personal impression, but I think that Muti has interpret of the masks in a contemporary way, accentuating the disquieting features next to the merry music of the party, as if he is trying to warn us that nothing is at is seems.
The brief sketch of Friar Laurence is a nice but apart, while the three scenes entitled Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene), Romeo and Juliet before Parting and Romeo and Juliet’s Tomb are more stronger related, at least because they are the only pieces that show a continuity. While the first two are delicate and tender, the most impressive is the last, where the tragedy really stand out. The sensation that something irreparable has happened is clearly evoked by Muti and the tomb scene appears with tragic immediacy.
Muti’s conduction of the Suite from Romeo and Juliet is a faithful description with little room for comment, but probably the effect would have been markedly different if he had lingered on sentimentality. His conduction is essential, but complete and remarkable precisely for its completeness and for the consequent firmness.
The sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is the last feature of this recording that I would like to point out. It is the orchestra that adds a tint to Muti’s engraving as its colours are bright, even flamboyant, and the skill of the ensemble is out of question.