Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [selections from the first two Suites, Opp.64a & 64b – Montagues and Capulets; Juliet the Young Girl; Madrigal; Minuet; Masks; Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene); Death of Tybalt; Friar Laurence; Romeo and Juliet Before Parting; Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb]
Symphony No.3 in C-minor, Op.44
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 16 November, 2019
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Prokofiev’s full-length ballet Romeo and Juliet traveled a rough road before reaching the public. Commissioned in 1934 for the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre, it was not staged as a complete ballet until 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and not performed in Russia until 1940 – only after the composer relented and reverted to Shakespeare’s tragic ending, which he had previously altered to allow Juliet to come back to life in Romeo’s arms so that the two lovers could dance off to a bright and blissful future. Before the ballet itself premiered, the composer had put together two orchestral suites – arranged more like symphonies than tone poems – consisting of seven excerpts each. For this concert, Riccardo Muti directed his own suite, which he constructed by choosing ten excerpts from the composer’s originals and arranging them in a 49-minute sequence to tell the traditional Shakespearean version of the story.
Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – who have a long and celebrated history with the music of Prokofiev – delivered a radiant and kaleidoscopic account, depicting the highly contrasting moods of the score with great precision and feeling. Beginning with ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – the high-energy movement introducing the warring families – the playing was gorgeous for the whole of the performance, as Muti expertly shaped the ebb and flow of the well-known excerpts to infuse them with fresh dramatic fervor. The weight of the brass section, splendid throughout, was particularly so in the ‘Dance of the Knights’, and in ‘Juliet the Young Girl’ the flute work was wonderfully expressive and elegant. In the richly lyrical balcony scene, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the CSO violins were at their most rapturous. The action-heavy ‘Death of Tybalt’ bustled with energy, while the final scene, ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’, could not have been more heartfelt.
After intermission came a long-time Muti specialty, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. The technically intimidating, strikingly modernistic piece draws on materials from his opera, ‘The Fiery Angel’, a fantastically lurid work about a hysterical nun who is haunted by visions of an angel who comes to earth in the form of a count. The bristling score overflows with grating dissonances, unsettling undercurrents, and relentlessly driving rhythms. The orchestra gave it its best for Muti, delivering an absolutely scorching and penetrating account of this symphonic gem. The intensity of sound and the excitement that informed the entire performance were absolutely stunning, but the most striking of the work’s four movements was the third, a bizarre scherzo seething with spooky effects – queasy glissandos from the violins, perverse squawks from the brass choir and insistent beats of the bass drum. The ensuing and increasingly frantic finale brought an appropriate end to a thoroughly satisfying concert in which Muti and the CSO musicians were at their most colorful and blazing best.