1 Aug 2019

PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet

From Podcast Classics, 12:01 am on 1 August 2019
Portrait of Prokofiev 1934

Portrait of Prokofiev 1934 Photo: Petr Petrovic Konchalovsky, Public Domain

During his relatively short life, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) lived through some of the most tumultuous upheavals of the 20th century including WWI, WW2, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and the reign of Stalin. Had he been born in a European country other than Russia, he might have escaped the worst of one or other of these world-shattering events.

Despite the background turmoil, Prokofiev composed prolifically in all the mainstream classical genres, performed as a pianist and conductor and even wrote film music.  He completed seven operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, five piano concertos, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, a symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra, and nine piano sonatas.

Shakespeare portrait by Cobbe

Shakespeare portrait by Cobbe Photo: Public Domain

For his 'Romeo & Juliet' ballet Prokofiev drew directly on Shakespeare's tragedy which is thought to date from the early 1590s.

But the path to the ballet's performance was rocky and full of setbacks, stumbling blocks, criticisms and revisions.

'Romeo & Juliet' finally got its first performance in Brno, Czechoslovakia and then in 1940, at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad.

In its final form there are 52 dance sequences organised into four Acts which tell the tragic story of the pair of star-crossed lovers.

A production of Romeo & Juliet at Royal Swedish Opera

A production of Romeo & Juliet at Royal Swedish Opera Photo: CC by 3.0

Prokofiev wanted special tonal colours for this work and he supplemented the standard orchestral line-up of the time with tenor saxophone and cornet (for the brass), viola d'amore and mandolins (for the strings), and a comprehensive array of percussion instruments. 

New colours and textures help to convey the essence of a character's personality or situation such as in the 'Romeo' and 'Young Juliet' themes, 'Dance of the Knights', 'Balcony Scene', 'Meeting of Tybalt & Mercutio', 'Juliet's Funeral' and 'Juliet's Death'.

Conductors, following the strong narrative thread unifying the ballet, often make their own choices for the concert platform, as is the case with this version for the NZSO.

Prokofiev himself also made three orchestral suites from the ballet music as well as a version for solo piano.

Peter Oundjian

Peter Oundjian Photo: Sian Richards-Kopie

Maestro Peter Oundjian's personal selection remains true to Prokofiev's stated aim of "reaching the hearts of all listeners" through the music alone, independent of the stage action of the ballet itself. (Based on notes: NZSO)

Recorded by RNZ Concert on 13 October 2018, at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Producer: David McCaw

Engineer: Darryl Stack

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