BMG Classics has devoted a lot of energy into promoting this new release, and why not? Michael Tilson Thomas's appointment as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony was big news, and also welcome, because it gave the orchestra its first American Music Director in many years. Tilson Thomas took the podium on September 6, 1995, and this release, which was recorded in concert just a couple of weeks later, suggests that the citizens of San Francisco can look forward to some electrifying music-making in the next five years.
Tilson Thomas rejected the composer's three suites and created his own selection of twenty-nine numbers from the complete ballet. Like Erich Leinsdorf, who took a similar approach with the Boston Symphony Orchestra three decades ago, the emphasis is on action, characters, and story-telling. Well over half the ballet's music is included on this long disc, and the performance has so much in its favor that it's frustrating that the conductor didn't record the entire ballet. There are many excellent recordings of the suites and other excerpts (although this version is competitive with any of them), but there are surprisingly few recordings of the complete work, and even fewer that I care to live with.
Ballet companies often don't get to perform with first-class orchestras, and vice-versa. Both parties could benefit from the opportunity. Here, Tilson Thomas and the SFS are more than simply dramatic – they're theatrical, and I know of no other recording that summons images of the dance as strongly as this one does. The crowd scenes – and the conductor's selection favors them – are brassy and splendid. (I'm beginning to suspect that a very young Malcolm Arnold ghost-wrote the infectiously gauche "Dance with Mandolins.") This recording's sole weakness is in the lovers' music, which is neither as passionate nor as tender as other conductors have made it. This weakness is mitigated by the fact that this music is not central to Tilson Thomas's conception of the score; it's not until the last third of the CD that the lovers' dilemma moves into the foreground. Surprisingly, Roméo and Juliet with less of the title characters than usual is still viable. This is a recording for people who want to be swept away by the score's spectacle rather than moved by its private tragedies.
A word needs to be said about the sound, which is as realistic as I've ever heard on CD. The brilliance of the playing is matched by the brilliance of the recording, which is demonstration-quality. I predict that a significant minority of listeners will find both the performance and the recording more hard-edged and blustery than worthy of praise, but audiophiles and admirers of "Heavy Classics" will be ecstatic.
Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle