Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Swedish Radio Choir, Robin Ticciati
94:00 (2 CDs)
Linn CKD 521

Neither on the grounds of period nor performance style does a review of this issue strictly speaking qualify for inclusion in EMR. Yet when the editor offered it to me, my reaction was ‘why not?’; after all Berlioz has played a major role in my concert experience over many years, having grown up alongside Colin Davis’ unforgettable performances of a composer who was to become for me very special. And there is the added interest that the conductor of this set is a protégé of Sir Colin.

Just as Monteverdi stretched the form of the madrigal beyond breaking point, so Berlioz did the same with his three symphonies. In the Symphonie fantastique, Harold en Italie  and Romeo et Juliette, Berlioz changed our perception of what a symphony might or could be. That applies particularly to Romeo with its seven movements, vocal sections and series of descriptive scenes more akin to an operatic scenario than a symphony. At its best – the Scène d’Amour or Queen Mab Scherzo – the work contains some of the greatest music Berlioz (or anyone else, for that matter) ever wrote, and even if we Berlioz enthusiasts would find if difficult to argue against a claim that it also has its weak moments (the final Serment, for example) it remains overall an extraordinary work.

The recording is taken from live performances given in Stockholm in November 2014, the audience being very well behaved. There is much to commend it. Ticciati’s direction is sympathetic, fervent when required and notable for its admirably sensible pacing, observation of Berlioz’ meticulous dynamic demands, and orchestral balance, though I do have a problem hearing the string harmonics in the central section of the Scherzo. Though not the world’s greatest, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in general copes well with Berlioz’s often-cruel demands, though there are places where string ensemble could ideally be better. The opening fugato is just one case in point among a number that might be cited. But there is some lovely playing in the ravishing Love Scene, which builds to a pulsating, tremulous climax. The Swedish Radio Chorus is quite good – more than that in the wonderful in lontano  exchanges between the revellers that preface the Love Scene – but their diction is often poor; they might be singing anything in ‘Jetez des fleurs’ (Juliet’s funeral procession, no. 5). Of the three soloists tenor Andrew Staples is pointed and characterful in the Mab vocal scherzetto, but mezzo Katija Dragojevic’s diction is also poor, while I’m sure Berlioz would not have expected so much continuous vibrato. Alastair Miles is a splendidly stentorian and authoritative Father Laurence, but the voice sounds rather worn and excessive vibrato is also a problem.

This recording has given me considerable pleasure and if, in the final analysis, it cannot compete with Colin Davis’ 1968 Philips version, that may partly be because I’ve now been wedded to that great recording for so long that I’m past conversion.

Brian Robins