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.


“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. Noting 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 ‘Romeo 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