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Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette

Sasha Cooke, Nicholas Phan, Luca Pisaroni; San Francisco Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Berlioz Roméo et Juliette
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone); San Francisco Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SFS 0074 (hybrid CD/SACD)   104:31 mins (2 discs)

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There is much to admire: buoyant energy, sparkling lightness (in the Queen Mab Scherzo), mostly well-balanced textures and acceptable if not quite native French. Yet after one hearing I felt something was missing. Listening again, and comparing it with the Vienna Philharmonic version under Colin Davis, I pinned it down to ‘intimacy’.

Of course there are long stretches, the opening fight music for one, where intimacy is the last thing that’s called for, and in these the present recording is unexceptionable. But Berlioz, asked near the end of his life what he liked best out of everything he’d written, plumped for the love music in Roméo – and who can blame him! In Davis’s reading we have the sense of listening in, eavesdropping indeed on a wholly intimate scene at which our presence is an extraordinary privilege. Not only is Tilson Thomas’s piano level above Davis’s, but he also misses tiny yet crucial nuances such as accents in the great tune on the minor sixth (F natural in A major), always followed in the Vienna strings by a wonderful slide up to the C sharp. As it happens, a C sharp from one of the horns also overpowers the start of one of the tune’s several appearances – a rare blot in this live recording.

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Roger Nichols