CD Review: BERLIOZ’S ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas)

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by Tony Frankel on December 9, 2018

in CD-DVD,Music


What’s in a name? That which we call a symphony by any other name would sound as sweet.

In the way that Monteverdi rethought the madrigal, so too did Berlioz re-imagine symphonies. He altered any previous preconceptions of what a symphony can be with his Symphonie fantastique (my first classical album!) but he stretched the notions of symphony construction beyond its structures (or should I say “strictures”?) with his Roméo et Juliette (1839), now available in a bright new recording from the San Francisco Symphony. There are seven movements, vocal segments, and a succession of sung graphic scenes that seem better suited to opera (Berlioz called it a “choral symphony”). A curious and eccentric hybrid in some ways, “take it in what sense thou wilt” but definitely take it. There are huge famous orchestral set pieces aplenty — ”Romeo Alone,” ”Love Scene,” the ”Queen Mab” Scherzo, ”Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets” — interspersed with choral passages, a low soprano/mezzo-soprano solo, a tenor solo and a bass (Friar Laurence’s pontifications).

This recording is taken from live performances at SF’s Davies Symphony Hall June 28-Jul 1, 2017, and as is the custom with Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm, the audience is most well-behaved — with no applause to interrupt the mood. And with spectacular engineering, you can really pick up a noteworthy orchestral balance, the orchestra being beautifully attuned to Berlioz’s idiom. Tilson Thomas’s leadership is concerned and compassionate, zealous when obligatory, and noteworthy for his commendably no-nonsense pacing, all the while reflecting Berlioz’s scrupulous dynamic demands.

MTT is always sympathetic with attention to detail, but here he is also unaffectedly genuine. In Shakespeare, we know the dismal fate of the lovers from the outset. From the beginning, he prompts us that things will go sour for the young couple by repeatedly accentuating the music’s heartbreaking air but with speedy resolve. In the SFS recording, The Capulets’ ball is almost intimidating, and the Love Scene’s elation is intermingled with expectations of what’s to come — a conducting feat. As Roméo broods unaccompanied, even the faraway tambourine, representative of the merriment he is about to join, jingles like rattling bones. The orchestra absolutely shimmers with a balance of precision and energy, warmth and excitement.

We also have the wonderful San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under Ragnar Bohlin, which not only copes quite well with Berlioz’s often-forbidding demands, but its members offer lovely diction — I don’t speak French and I could understand them. (Still, it would have been nice to have lyrics and their translation in the 31-page booklet instead of overlong bios). There’s also a wonderful reverb accomplished here that makes the chorus sound as if they were recorded from inside a medieval church.

The crystalline-voiced mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (who I just saw yesterday in LA Opera’s Hansel and Gretel), wisely avoids histrionics and boom — she simply flutters beautifully. Listening to the best parts of this exciting recording — the “Queen Mab” Scherzo sung with vigor and humor by tenor Nicholas Phan; the Friar Laurence Aria superbly rumbled by the commanding Luca Pisaroni – it’s clear this work holds some of the finest music Berlioz gave us. Yes, he wrote some thinner moments (as impassioned as it is, the final “Oath of Reconciliation” is strangely unmoving musically), but overall it’s simply an extraordinary work. As always, SFS’s packaging is the best in the business.

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17
San Francisco Symphony | Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
2 discs | 9 tracks | 104:31 | released November 30, 2018
available at SFS Media, Amazon and iTunes

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