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Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet"


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 03 March 2003 - 09:34 PM

Wednesday, March 5, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sergei Prokofiev. While there is never a bad time to listen to his music, I feel this might be an especially appropriate one.

Three of his works (actually two and one half) have been in my CD player for the past few days: the second piano concerto in G minor, “Romeo and Juliet” and the orchestral suites which the composer reduced from “R&J”.

“Romeo and Juliet” has been my favorite Shakespeare play for years, and the Prokofiev score has become the ballet music that I most love. “R&J” is the quintessential romance. Love and death are always present, finally at the same time. The hero and heroine are both young and beautiful. They meet and fall in love immediately. They are as star-crossed as it is possible to be, of course, and are doomed. But it is just the stupidity of others that causes their doom. There is no call to a higher duty as in “Antony and Cleopatra”, no incurable psychological flaw as in “The Winter’s Tale”, no intervention of unspeakable evil, as in “Othello”. There is nothing but the completely ingrained hatred of their families.

The depth and terribly poignancy of the drama lies in the intensity of how the delightful agony of young love is portrayed and in the astonishing poetry that conveys it. It contains some of the most memorable and heartbreaking verse of the greatest master of English spoken theater.

It is a story that begs to be set to music—Bellini, Berlioz (who hated Bellini’s opera), Gounod, Bernstein and many more. The claustrophobia of the drama, the alternating intense action followed by the sharpest longings of love create a structure in themselves.

Prokofiev rose to the challenge and wrote what is for me the perfect ballet score to the perfect tragic love story. It has theatrical sweep and expressive power but also shows lyricism and grace. It is one of his most melodic works—while no one would call Prokofiev an arch-melodist (like, for example, Puccini) the gorgeous flood of melody in the balcony scene is worth hearing over and over.

The recording of the entire ballet I have been listening to is by the Kirov Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, from 1991. The Kirov forces highlight the delicacy and shimmering beauty that is always present but do not ignore the sweeping arc of the story. The anticipation and longing of the thirteen-year-old heroine comes through, as does the deadly loutishness of the warring families. The Kirov musicians, one would think, have this music in their bones and this recording shows them at a very high level.

The Orchestral Suites have been recorded quite often and still find a place on the concert stage. Prokofiev chose the most self-contained sections, then adapted them and arranged them in the order the thought best for listening. It can be a bit nerve wracking if you know the ballet (which most here will) since the order of the music does not follow the story line at all. It is still wonderful to hear, but needs to be thought of as separate and distinct from the ballet score itself.

The second piano concerto was my introduction to this Russian master, about a zillion years ago. For those old enough to remember vinyl LPs, it was one side of a record—one that I wore out the grooves playing.

There is a lot to be said for approaching ballet scores as music in themselves—I have become more aware of this recently. “Romeo and Juliet” is a great place to start.

#2 Mary J

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 07:35 AM

Ed - I agree completely about Prokofiev's R&J. That music has more emotional impact on me than almost anything else I listen to. And with ballet images running through my head, it is even more powerful. If I could only take five pieces of ballet music to a desert island, that would be one of them.

You might want to look for an inexpensive CD by pianist Frederic Chiu which includes Prokofiev's piano versions of a portion of the R&J Suite, Cinderella and War and Peace. The R&J sections are just exquisite!

#3 Ed Waffle

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 04:00 PM

Originally posted by Mary J
Ed - I agree completely about Prokofiev's R&J. That music has more emotional impact on me than almost anything else I listen to. And with ballet images running through my head, it is even more powerful. If I could only take five pieces of ballet music to a desert island, that would be one of them.


I think I would take Prokofiev's "R&J" complete score as one of the top five pieces of music, ballet or otherwise. I am listening to it a lot. I picked up another recording, Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1971, which is preferable to me in almost every way than the Gergiev/Kirov I first mentioned.

In the past, "real" music for me was a pretty narrow range--Classical with a capital C, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and all that, especially the chamber music and especially the violin sonatas. When I began to listen to 20th century music, Prokofiev grabbed me immediately. But I always considered the ballet music of the modern Russian masters to be something for the theater, not for "serious" listening--in other words, I was a snob.

But repeated exposure to R&J has opened my eyes (or actually ears). I wouldn't try to compare it to other symphonic type music of the same period, since I don't know much of it well, but in itself it is a wonderful piece of music that gets better the more one hears it.

Originally posted by Mary J

You might want to look for an inexpensive CD by pianist Frederic Chiu which includes Prokofiev's piano versions of a portion of the R&J Suite, Cinderella and War and Peace. The R&J sections are just exquisite!


Your wish, apparently, is my command. The very knowledgeable rep at the record store pointed out a reissued budget disc of exactly the recording you mention--I am listening to it as I type this. It will take some getting used to, but it shows just how melodic R&J is.

#4 Mary J

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 09:22 AM

I can also strongly recommend the Michael Tilson Thomas R&J recording - I forget the label - it is a live performance (with all the coughs apparently edited out), and the emotional level is breath-taking. On the other hand, I am a great fan of MTT conducting anything.


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