BERLIOZ Roméo et Juliette (Slatkin)
Two previous releases in this occasional Lyon Berlioz cycle – the Symphonie fantastique (10/12) and Harold en Italie (A/14) – were received with only moderate rapture in the pages of Gramophone. Yet this latest release (presumably held over from its 2014 recording date to coincide with the composer’s recent anniversary) seems a stronger offering altogether. Working as before with the orchestra of which he was then music director, Slatkin displays again his characteristic commitment and an ability to sound at home in the repertoire – and with the musicians – of other cultures. His Berlioz in France follows on from his adoption of Vaughan Williams (and other British composers) in the UK.
Several of this ‘dramatic symphony’s’ previous interpreters have shown awareness of the score’s place in musical history, its importance to Wagner, its continuing from Beethoven, and so on. Slatkin parks all this history to one side in favour of a direct, unpretentious yet always dramatic reading, a Roméo without intellectual frills, as it were. His ‘dramatic’ is not as knowing as Colin Davis’s – the colouring of whose four recordings displays much knowledge of the play’s ironic twists – or Pierre Boulez’s, who sounds as if he is conducting the key central ‘Scène d’amour’ with Wagner looking over his shoulder. And, although we know that Slatkin has a general interest in earlier versions, he does not mine lost cuts and alternatives out of the archives as did Gardiner. This is Roméo straight and as is.
Slatkin works his orchestra hard but it is not yet the equal of Davis’s LSO or Vienna Philharmonic or Gardiner’s Revolutionary Romantics (Philips, 3/98). Enthusiasm, in a most live-sounding recording, often takes priority over sheer needlepoint ensemble. Slatkin’s Père Laurence has a good voice but his text is not the clearest – it’s hard not to miss the Shakespearean popular humanity of Gardiner’s Gilles Cachemaille, even if he is not the ‘noble orator’ Berlioz once called for. The choir is good – smaller than we sometimes hear but bright, forward, clear and (on those crucial vowel sounds) above all French.
Amid today’s anarchic pricing of the classical catalogues Naxos can no longer guarantee a bargain basement slot. But this certainly reasonably priced edition is worth serious consideration against the big names, especially if you are not over-concerned about the work’s intellectual subtext. And it’s good to catch up again with two further Berlioz Shakespeare works, especially the rarer Le roi Lear, a potent but sad reminder of the operas that weren’t to be.