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Valery Gergiev defeated by Valery Gergiev
on 17 April 2010
Valery Gergiev returned after twenty years to re-record Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet". His first attempt with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre remains one of the best around, a full-blooded, dramatically exciting reading but also one balanced by warmth and tenderness in the more romantic passages of the score. Now heading the London Symphony Orchestra we get a new full-length live recording, culled from two concerts at the London Barbican in November 2008.
Overall it is a very different experience and if we only had to consider the audio quality this new "Romeo and Juliet" might have been a clear first choice. LSO Live offers spectacular stereo and multi-channel mixes, somewhat dry but pleasantly expansive and with superb detail. The London Symphony Orchestra undoubtedly is the better ensemble of the two, but that doesn't necessarily mean it sounds better. The distinctive sound of the Russian orchestra (not to mention its familiarity with the score through performance practice) serves this music in ideal fashion, especially with gorgeously colored woodwinds, brass and percussion - and Gergiev knew how to make them sound. Yet, if this new LSO disc doesn't eventually replace the older one, it is mainly because of Gergiev's conducting.
Where Gergiev's Mariinsky recording had a natural flow, here he sounds often studied, even labored, and you start wondering if the music is ever going to take flight. As usual there are several moments of spotlighting, details in the orchestration one never noticed before, intriguing in themselves but as it turns out at the expense of the symphonic sweep and the characterization. By this approach the ballet is turned into one of these voluminous Russian novels where you get so much information in each chapter, you're bound to lose the broad lines. In this respect this "Romeo and Juliet" becomes rather tough to sit through. It's when Prokofiev is at his most evocative that Gergiev is often the most disappointing, like the awakening street at the beginning of Act 1, or the blossoming of love between Romeo and Juliet at the ball, where nothing much exciting seems to be happening - and which are handled with so much more imagination in the earlier recording. Gergiev also has slowed down on many occasions, sometimes to the point of sluggishness. What to make of that lethargic Dance with the mandolins (#25) ? Or a Mercutio with leaden feet (#15) ? Compared to his Mariinsky version the new one is often lacking in bite and dramatic momentum. "Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio's death" and "Finale" (#35, 36) is now strangely undramatic, almost laidback (in spite of that unwarranted accelerando during the big chords), while the previous account had an urgency and sense of purpose which made you see the scene in front of your eyes. Act 3 with its chamber music-like scoring, reflecting Juliet's changes of moods, fares perhaps best of all, but even here Gergiev is never a first choice.
Gergiev can be a magician in concert, but here the magic is mostly absent. First choices for the complete ballet score remain unchanged: Lorin Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra, with a razor-sharp, intense reading which grabs you by the throat at every page (and a stunning analogue recording to boast), Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with a glowingly passionate and elegant account, and, oh yes, Valery Gergiev with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre.