Romeo and Juliet

5 Records You Should Own: Romeo And Juliet

By Rad Bennett

Here are more holiday-themed recommendations, this time pertaining to Valentine’s Day. This holiday has become mostly one for the merchants, a season during which they can sell giant teddy bears for $40 (at Walmart, haven’t they seen The Revenant?) or heart shaped boxes of candy carrying enough calories to blast apart anyone’s weight loss resolutions for New Year’s.

As far as music goes, Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, hapless teens so hopelessly in love, have epitomized romance for centuries and have inspired many famous and not-so famous composers to compose music about them. Here are five you should have in your collection.

Tchaikovsky Roeo & Juliet Munch Tchaikovsky: Romeo and JulietOverture-Fantasy. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, conductor. RCA Living Stereo vinyl and CD.

So popular is Tchaikovsky’s tone poem that you can mention Romeo and Juliet in certain circles and people are liable to assume Tchaikovsky before Shakespeare.  It was written at the suggestion of composer Mily Balakirev who made copious suggestions, some of which Tchaikovsky took and others he rejected. The premiere of the first version was something of a disaster and the composer returned to it, taking his friend and mentor’s suggestions more to heart, producing a somewhat successful second version. Tchaikovsky made yet a third version of the piece and that one has remained a staple of orchestral literature, one of the best known pieces of classical music in the repertory.

The work opens with solemn music meant to depict Friar Laurence; this is quickly supplanted by agitated music suggesting the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues. This passage calms down and leads to the instantly recognizable love theme but it is once more engulfed by agitation before returning in full glory. A coda suggesting the tomb of the lovers closes the work.

There are umpteen recordings of this magnificent tone poem in the catalog, but I think it is Charles Munch and his amazing Boston players who fully captured the rapture and drama of the music. From the opening reedy clarinets to the luscious strings and piercing cymbal clashes, every detail seems exactly right, every tempo absolutely correct.

RCa’s Living Stereo team did their work well, too. The sound stage is wide and deep with great focus and presence. There’s lots of low, focused bass and the brass blaze forth in correct relationship to the rest of the orchestra. You’ll find that RCA used its recording as filler for several different combinations, but the original one coupled it with a very good recording of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.

Alternate Takes: London Symphony, André Previn, conductor (Angel LP and CD), Cincinnati Symphony, Paavo Jarvi, conductor (Telarc, CD only).

Further Explorations: Hamlet (Maazel), Francesca da Rimini (Munch, Bernstein)

Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet MaazelProkofiev: Romeo and Juliet. Cleveland Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, conductor. Decca/London vinyl and CD.

Serge Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet version of the famous story originally had a happy ending, which Soviet cultural officials did not like. Its production was therefore delayed and it received its first Russian performance in 1940 after an initial Czechoslovakian performance in 1938. Though the composer scored for an enormous orchestra, including tenor saxophone and a veritable army of percussion instruments, as well as piano, celesta, organ, and 2 mandolins, the approach is on the light and lyrical side. Only in a few set pieces, like “The Death of Tybalt” does the entire orchestra blast the roof off the theater, so to speak.

Lorin Maazel’s Cleveland performance was the first in stereo of the complete ballet and featured the Ohio orchestra at its best, recorded in glowing sound by Decca. Just a short while later, EMI released a recording with Previn and the London Symphony which was also very good. In fact, Previn might be pegged as capturing the lyrical aspects of the ballet with greater success, but Maazel does fine by these and gets more from the dramatic passages. Prokofiev arranged several suites from the ballet and these are included in the “Alternate Takes” section.

Alternate Takes: London Sympony, André Previn, conductor. Suites: New York Phiharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor (CBS/Sony vinyl and CD, Speakers Corner vinyl); Minnesota Orchestra, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor (Mercury vinyl and CD, Speakers Corner vinyl).

Further Explorations: Cinderella (Previn)

Berlioz Romeo & Juliet BernsteinBerlioz: Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony – Insrumental excerpts. New York Phiharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor.

Berlioz started composing his take on Shakespeare’s young lovers after seeing a performance of the play in London and falling madly in love with its Juliet – Harriet Smithson (the two were married in 1833 but broke up due to Berlioz’s affair with another woman). Dramatic symphony is the best descriptor for the sprawling composition, which has lovely sections of purely orchestral music and less successful solo and choral sections for singers.

Leonard Bernstein recorded most of the orchestral sections of the piece to fit on a single LP with the Roman Carnival Overture and created one exceptionally appealing recording. He wears his passion on his sleeve; his performance here is romantic with a capital “R.” The New York players give Lenny the passion he wants with precision and gorgeous tone. The CBS engineers must have sensed how important this recording was because they gave Bernstein some of the very best sound he was ever accorded by CBS. Every time I come back to this recording I can’t believe how good it is. For me, it’s a mesmerizing experience to listen to it.

Alternate Takes: Selection: Chicago Symphony; Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor (EMI vinyl and CD) Complete work: London Symphony, Pierre Monteux (Westminster/DG vinyl, CD); Boston Symphony, Charles Munch (second stereo version with Rosalind Elias and Giorgio Tozzi, hard to find but worth the search).

Further Explorations: Beatrice et Benedict (London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis, Philips) Rob Roy Overture (London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis)

Diamond - Romeo & JulietDavid Diamond: Music for Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ New York Chamber Symphony; Gerard Schwarz, conductor. (Delos and Naxos CD)

Now here’s some nifty music for Shakespeare’s play that you probably don’t know from one of America’s most underrated and underplayed composers, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 90. It’s a mix of neo-classic and neo-romantic music, loaded with charm, with and passion, thoroughly American, and  pithy when need be (the opening Overture which depicts the battling Capulets and Montagues being a case in point). Schwarz has been a lifelong champion of Diamond’s music and gets everything right in this open and clean recording.

Alternate Takes: none

Further Explorations: Symphony No. 2 (Schwarz) No. 4 (Bernstein, Schwarz)

West Side Story OCLeonard Bernstein: West Side Story – Original Cast Recording. (CBS-Sony vinyl and CD)

Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein set Romeo and Juliet by transporting it to mid-50s New York, with Tony and Maria falling in love even though she is Puerto Rican and he is not. One can’t point to “moments” of brilliance here, the whole work is brilliant and innovative; it changed Broadway and ran for 732 performances before going on tour. There have been a number of good recordings of the music but the original cast, starring Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, and Larry Kert has the kind of magic you run into once in a lifetime. The engineers provided good, honest sound but this was very early stereo where there’s some ping ponging going on (this actually help’s the set piece “Tonight.”) If you only have one Broadway show in your collection, it should be this one.

Alternate Takes: close but no cigar, the movie soundtrack.

Further Explorations: On the Town (original cast); Trouble in Tahiti (WInograd), Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” (Bernstein)