What a fantastic DIGITAL recording of Prokofiev's masterpiece! This is probably my favorite ballet, and so I have collected (too) many recordings trying to find the perfect one. Previn's London Symphony and Maazel's Cleveland Orchestra recordings are both admirable, but Ashkenazy's account with the Royal Philharmonic rises to the top of my list.
Ashkenazy succeeds in bringing out Prokofiev's jaunty rhythms and captures the deep passion and romance that these young "star-crossed" lovers experienced for one another. The tempos seem appropriate throughout. Ashkenazy's tempo changes in the "Love Dance" caught me a bit off guard at first, but after listening a few times they made sense (I can't remember what the score calls for there). This account, more than any other that I've heard, summons the image of dancers on stage. (For a more symphonic approach, look to Previn's recording.)
The Royal Philharmonic is simply superb. My biggest complaint with most other recordings of this ballet (including Previn's) is that the violins are so often out-of-tune. The intonation here, however, is simply impeccable. The strings play warmly and with precision (see, especially, "Romeo Decides to Avenge Mercutio"), and the first violins are simply amazing in the "Balcony Scene." The woodwind solos are beautifully played throughout (the flute solos are much clearer and better supported than those in Maazel's recording, and the oboe solos are darker and warmer than those in both Maazel's and Previn's orchestras). The brass section is fantastic in all three recordings, but balance notably well here.
The digital recording gives Ashkenazy an advantage over Maazel and Previn. The sound is crystal clear, which allows one to appreciate Prokofiev's unique orchestration techniques, such as his use of soaring violin harmonics and haunting low-register piccolo. The transparency of sound also allows one to hear details such as interesting woodwind doubling and middle horn parts much more clearly.
Overall, I would recommend this recording above all others. There are very few moments that aren't flawless, the orchestra is virtuosic, the sound is fantastic, and the full spectrum of emotions that this story evokes is exploited to the fullest. Of course owning other recordings, especially Maazel's and Previn's, is essential for the truly committed fan of this work, but if you plan to have only one recording, this should be your one.