Valery Gergiev conducts Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: Roméo et Juliette
PERFORMER: Olga Borodina (mezzo), Kenneth Tarver (tenor), Evgeny Nikitin (bass-baritone); Guildhall School Singers; London Symphony Chorus & LSO/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: Live LSO 0762 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Berlioz’s take on Shakespeare poses a challenge to conductors, since it’s not a setting of the play but a symphonic-style celebration and meditation upon it. Chorus and soloists are chiefly commentators, while the actual drama plays out in a lyrical, dramatic orchestral score. Valery Gergiev, in this live account, inclines towards operatic fire and pace, occasionally headlong, but with a clarity and hushed, atmospheric pianissimo finely captured by the spacious SACD recording. His orchestra and chorus has been seasoned in Berlioz under Sir Colin Davis, with two familiar soloists, the rich-toned Olga Borodina and Kenneth Tarver, who once again delivers Mercutio’s Queen Mab fantasy with elegant fluency and dash. Evgeny Nikitin, a late substitute as Friar Lawrence, sounds less involved and less expressive in French than rivals elsewhere, and with less gravitas-enhancing bass resonance.

Nevertheless, only the variety and excellence of rival recordings keep this from being an obvious choice. There are classic oldies, such as the underrated Pierre Monteux, much warmer and more idiomatic, with finer soloists; but most of all Sir Colin Davis’s three. His last, also with the LSO, has a less immediate SACD sound, but its depth and passion outclass even Gergiev’s.

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Michael Scott Rohan