Romeo et Juliette (Berlioz) - Pierre Boulez, Vol. XIX;  Helen Watts, Ian Partridge & Jules Bastin  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1061)
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Romeo et Juliette (Berlioz) - Pierre Boulez, Vol. XIX;  Helen Watts, Ian Partridge & Jules Bastin  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1061)
C1802. PIERRE BOULEZ Cond. BBC S.O., w. HELEN WATTS, IAN PARTRIDGE & JULES BASTIN: ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (Berlioz). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1061, Live Performance, 13 Nov., 1974, Royal Festival Hall, London. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“A colleague on a collector list claims that many of the recordings Pierre Boulez made for Deutsche Gramophon were marred by engineering that drained the life out of them. The truth in this statement becomes crystal clear when comparing his 2000 version of Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, ROMÉO ET JULIETTE, to the 1974 concert broadcast comprising the 19th volume of Yves St. Laurent’s Boulez series. Not only is this now one of the best offerings in the estimable St. Laurent Studio catalog, it also puts many other better known recordings of Berlioz’s wild and wooly hybrid vision to shame.

It seems fair to posit that we wouldn’t have the orchestra in quite the form we know it now were it not for Berlioz and his grandiose ideas of what a Gargantuan ensemble might entail. His 1830 Symphonie Fantastique pulled out all the stops in terms of program and orchestral execution, but nine years later, with the choral innovations of Beethoven’s ninth symphony firmly in mind, Berlioz turned his attention, on a vast dramatic scale, to Shakespeare. It’s no overstatement to say that ROMÉO ET JULIETTE is one of the most radical conceptions of the 19th century, and deeper exposure to its formal, structural and timbral innovations, not to mention its sublimely strange rhetoric, cements that notion. It’s neither symphony nor opera, though it has elements of both genres, but the main roles are suggested by the orchestra rather than sung. The orchestral contribution is where the November 13, 1974 concert with Boulez, contralto Helen Watts, tenor Ian Partridge, bass Jules Bastin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is absolutely stunning. The opening fugue is meant to suggest the bustling city streets of Mantua, Montagues and Capulets deep in conflict, and from the first bristling phrases, we hear a less analytical and more involved conductor than many of his later recordings suggest, one who presents the combination of danger and the sheer excitement, the joy of living, that Berlioz’s music so often involves. Boulez builds the contrapuntal form until the open fifths in the brass slow the tempo down, the timing both inevitable and flawless, preparing for the prince’s intervention as represented by the low brass recitative.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there is the scene where Roméo stands outside of the Capulet residence, his loneliness contrasted with the festivities inside. A conductor like Ricardo Muti renders Roméo’s anguish, as one might expect from the somber Wagner-anticipating harmonic aesthetic, but Boulez finds many more subtleties of expression in the chromatic writing and the constantly morphing orchestration. Listen out for the oboe entrance at 1:58, which is then taken up by the strings in gloriously aching crescendo; the moment prefigures similar felicities in the finest of Boulez’s late-period recordings, also in concert, of the only completed movement from Mahler’s 10th symphony. In no other performance I know are the complexities of Roméo’s humanity at that crucial juncture so vividly portrayed, rendering the ensuing celebratory music inside the Capulet ballroom all the more bitterly poignant. Boulez brings a similar energetic grit to the Queen Mab scherzo, with its dizzyingly high strings and dexterous flute writing in stark relief, all aided by the raw vitality of the concert experience. Then, there is the gorgeous love scene, beginning with double chorus as the Capulets depart from the party, expertly performed…a double chorus feature which transitions into the balcony scene, again represented by orchestra alone. The Beethoven’s Ninth allegiance is particularly evident in the opening sonority, which Boulez realizes in astonishing pianissimo, but the real treat is the delicious blending of layered strings and winds, complete with pizzicato basses, as he slowly combines textural build and subtle tempo fluctuation, ratcheting up the Romanticism to boiling point. Obviously revelling in the composer’s gift for melody, as did Wagner, Boulez doesn’t miss a phrase in what is really a symphonic poem anticipating Franz Liszt’s coinage of the term. In Boulez’s hands, the combined effect of string recitative, winds response, daring harmonic writing and equally innovative juxtapositions in mood and orchestration demonstrates how far ahead of his time the French composer really was. If further proof were needed, the staggering contrast during Roméo’s internal struggle at Juliet’s tomb makes the case. The myriad pauses, sudden shifts in sonority and violent outbursts render the orchestra a unified voice, especially under Boulez’s direction.

None of this is to denigrate the vocalists’ performances. Helen Watts’ rich and dark voice rises majestically above the choral recitative as the plot is elucidated in the prologue, and particularly effective is Bastin’s warm-blooded contribution as Friar Laurence, imbuing the finale with a healthy balance of heft and wisdom. In fact, the finale may be among the most sumptuous versions on record, a fitting foil to the frenetic fugal opening as all forces are united. Here, the instrumental and vocal ensembles’ deployment across the soundstage is as vivid as could be desired, leading to well-deserved applause. Though neither text nor translation is included, they are easily found online. Of course, fans of the St. Laurent Boulez series will not hesitate, but for anyone looking for another version of this relatively unknown and prescient opus to adorn your shelves, alongside those vintage contributions from Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux and Sir Colin Davis, look no further!”

- Marc Medwin, DUSTED, 28 Oct., 2020

“Although he waited until 2000 to make a studio recording of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (with the Cleveland Orchestra on DG), Pierre Boulez’s reputation as a Berlioz interpreter went back decades. He belongs in the elite group of conductors who raised Berlioz’s stature on disc, along with Charles Munch and Colin Davis. This alone makes it invaluable to have this live performance from 1974 of Berlioz’s rather mad ‘dramatic symphony’, besides the fact that it is a superb performance captured in good broadcast stereo.

A hostile French critic in the 19th century who detested both Wagner and Berlioz called them ‘enemy brothers’. Both owed a great deal to the inspiration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but its influence took them in opposite directions. Berlioz heard the music as confirmation that the symphony could be expanded to dramatic ends that went beyond opera. Wagner heard the Ninth as the ultimate point in symphonic development, making it futile to continue in the genre.

As a young man in Paris attending the premiere of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE in 1839, Wagner was overwhelmed and inspired by it, just as Berlioz had been overwhelmed when he first saw Shakespeare’s tragedy on stage (starring his future wife, Harriet Smithson). The opening notes of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE are directly borrowed from the opening of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (although it’s not the notes but the ‘Tristan chord’ that changed music history). When he presented Berlioz with an inscribed score of TRISTAN, Wagner autographed it ‘To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE’.

Yet there’s no doubt that Wagner didn’t like the form of the work, which lies at the root of the madness of Berlioz’s conception, probably the greatest bad idea in classical music. As beautiful as ROMÉO ET JULIETTE is, it doesn’t capture Shakespeare’s play in any organized way. The two lovers do not appear as singing characters, although Mercutio does, and we end with a mundane monologue by a secondary character at best, Friar Laurence. The good friar summarizes the tragedy, using words that aren’t even Shakespeare’s, and the narrative falls far short of actually dramatizing the fatal tomb scene. Finally, it is hard to hear in the many individual episodes exactly how the score qualifies as a symphony.

It’s no wonder that so many conductors prefer to perform excerpts, particularly the Love Scene and Queen Mab’s Scherzo - Boulez himself toured with excerpts leading the New York Philharmonic the next year, 1975, with major stop offs at the Lucerne and Edinburgh Festivals. Some consider his best phase to be the London years spent as music director of the BBC Symphony. What is remembered from this period is mostly Boulez’s groundbreaking recordings of the Second Viennese School, but this vibrant ROMÉO ET JULIETTE from Royal Festival Hall is a treasure.

To discover what makes it special, one has only to compare the tenor’s Queen Mab solo from 1974, which is fast, high-spirited, and sung with brio by Ian Partridge, to the rather staid version on the DG recording sung scrupulously but without ebullience by Kenneth Tarver. Because of his bent for precision and detailed balances, Boulez can seem a bit clinical, especially in his late phase where, for me at least, he is too intent on dissecting a score rather than communicating it to the listener. Nothing like that happens here. Every mood that Berlioz evokes is fully realized and conveyed.

The half hour that everyone loves goes from the opening of Part II through ‘Roméo alone’, the Scène d'amour, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. On disc we’ve had lovingly romantic versions under Bernstein and Giulini as excerpts, and equally beautiful readings as part of complete performances under Munch and Colin Davis. Even with these in your mind’s ear, Boulez surpasses everyone in his wonderful merging of musical finesse, precision, variety, and ardent feeling. The BBC Symphony and Chorus are totally sympathetic, following every nuance. The solo woodwinds are especially lovely and expressive. The only minor drawback is that the chorus is set rather far away.

The one thing you won’t hear is the unique Gallic flavor brought to the score by French singers and instrumentalists under Igor Markevitch and Myung-Whun Chung (both on DG). They were recently joined by a thoroughly satisfying Francophone version under Leonard Slatkin from Lyon (Naxos). We do get an authentic touch in 1974 from French bass Jules Bastin as Friar Laurence. Bastin is superb in a thankless role, but major credit goes to Boulez and the BBC Chorus for infusing the weakest section of the score with dramatic conviction. Alto Helen Watts sings her solo artistically, although sounding just a hint matronly.

Until the Slatkin set appeared in 2019, new recordings of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE had been scarce, and none moved the needle when compared with longtime favorites under Munch and Davis. But this live Boulez reading must be counted among the great ones, and it is a must-listen for anyone who loves Berlioz’s odd, rapturous creation. This is Vol. 19 in St. Laurent’s unique Boulez series of live performances. No libretto or synopsis is included.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

“Helen Watts (1927–2009) was a great British contralto known for her probing intelligence as well as her lovely singing....It is a privilege to encounter a singer capable of conveying [such a] wide variety of moods and emotions...and a singer who sounds so completely at home in several musical styles."

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE

“Helen Watts was a singer of that best British school which, with the initial gift of a fine voice, learns the business and does the job, is hardly ever known to miss a beat or fluff an entry, and ends up being taken for granted. To the record-buying public she was a regular and reliable part of the LP scene, and when given a chance - as in the premier recording of Vaughan Williams’ RIDERS TO THE SEA - she rose to the occasion nobly.

She first became known as a soloist in association with Bach, first in broadcasts, then, in 1955 appearing at a Promenade concert conducted by Sargent. Regular appearances with the newly formed Handel Opera Society led to guest performances in Berlin and Halle. She also sang in the USSR in the title role of THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA in the English Opera Group’s tour of 1964, Britten himself conducting. She sang Mozart and Richard Strauss in Salzburg, and in New York Delius and Mahler. At Covent Garden her roles included Erda in the RING, Mrs Sedley in PETER GRIMES and Madame Sosostris in MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. To these she added Mistress Quickly in FALSTAFF with the Welsh National Opera, singing with the Company till 1983. In all of this time she was a sought-after soloist in performances of oratorio throughout Britain and sustained a busy schedule of other concert work. Official recognition came with her award of a CBE in 1978. Of her recordings, GRAMOPHONE’s critics (like most others) invariably wrote with admiration and respect - and they had plenty to be respectful about. Nearly 20 volumes of Bach cantatas are enriched by her participation; she was a stalwart principal in the early Handel opera recordings on L’Oiseau-Lyre. She was the ‘dependable, sympathetic’ Ursula in both of the early versions in BÉATRICE ET BÉNÉDICT (David Cairns’ words in OPERA ON RECORD Vol 2) and sings ‘nobly’ (mine in Vol 3) as the bereaved mother in RIDERS TO THE SEA. There was much else, including a fine performance as the Angel in THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, which in the 1976 recording under Boult does find a worthy setting. One returns to that death-haunted old woman in what is surely Vaughan Williams’ operatic masterpiece. As long as the waves continue to wash against the desolate Arran coastline, listeners who come to know the opera in that still unequalled recording will hear in their minds the voice of Helen Watts.”

- John Steane, GRAMOPHONE, 23 October, 2009