Sunday, May 9, 2010

In review--Oh, Romeo, how art thou Romeo...

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev
Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet

I discovered Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet while I was researching one of the composer’s piano concertos for an article. I was immediately captivated by the composer’s musical themes, his edgy orchestration and accessibility. London Symphony Orchestra’s (led by Valery Gergiev) live recording of Romeo and Juliet marks also my second listen to this phenomenal work. The live performance does the incidental music justice, though I would still love to see dancers performing the ballet to this score.

When I listen to classical works I have this tendency to search for influences or for possible disciples (informal or formal) of the composer. The question in my mind while I listened to this version of the ballet score revolved around Leonard Bernstein’s score to Westside Story. As you know, Westside Story based itself on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well, though only one of the lovers dies at the end of the tragedy. While Bernstein was dealing more with theatrical entertainment that employed jazz and Latin music elements combined with classical, Prokofiev incorporated 20th century classical elements in his ballet score, which is most likely why it sounds modern even today. And yet, Bernstein must have been influenced by Prokofiev’s jagged edges (during fight scenes) or dissonance and use of percussion during death scenes. And in fact, I found a few mentions on the internet that connected to the two composers.

Prokofiev’s ballet also influenced Aaron Copland (I assume by listening to both composers' music), an American composer (see blog review under Aaron Copland) who combined folkloric elements with modern classical. And Grieg’s Peer Gynt also comes to my mind when I listen to Prokofiev’s ballet. I draw this comparison from the varying rhythms and textures both composers apply to move a musical story forward and to convey an array of emotions from joy to trepidation.

London Symphony Orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet appears on 2 discs. While the symphony and conductor provided liner notes, the notes mainly focus on the history of the ballet and how it fit into a succession of Russian ballets. I would have liked to have learned about Prokofiev’s mindset when he composed the score. What was his state of mind? He included a lot of humor in the score and detached pathos during the death scenes, at least in comparison to Tchaikovsky’s emotional and sweeping version of the same ballet. Prokofiev took an edgy and less romantic approach (except for the scene where Romeo encounters Juliet), with some sarcasm thrown in with Mercutio’s theme. And come to think of it, this is probably what Shakespeare had in mind too since he was not beyond wit and sarcasm himself. So in that respect Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet feels refreshing.

Listen to Morning Dance (track 4 on CD 1) and you can hear Prokofiev’s sense of humor among the pompous brass in conversation with staccato strings and woodwinds. The tuba answers with sarcastic blasts while the flutes rush past on the following track, The Quarrel which then leads to a fight between the young Capulets and Montagues. The music not only emphasizes the current scenes, but foreshadows events to come. Musical themes such as ones attached to Juliet and Mercutio appear again later, transfigured to reveal the changed circumstances of the characters. As you would expect Juliet’s theme is played on flutes, strings with a soft and dreamy tone. Mercutio’s theme features circus type brass in conversation with rollicking strings and easily conveys the liveliest music in the ballet.

I wish that I had better speakers to listen to this score. The electrical hum on my computer and player distract and I just end up feeling frustrated. Though this recording does provide sense around sound and must sound fantastic on a high-quality player. And like any ballet, theatrical or opera score, this incidental music works best when a listener follows along with the text of the scenes. The score which runs on the long side can be listened to in 1 or 2 sittings. And this magnificent recording deserves listeners’ undivided attention. Think of it as intellectual-stimulating entertainment.  Prokofiev's score provides a workout for the brain and it provides heartfelt moments too.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Thank you Arnold for dropping by the Whole Music Experience and leaving a thoughtful comment.