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Hector Berlioz: "Romeo et Juliette," Opus 17
San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, music director
San Francisco Symphony Chorus; Ragnar Bohlin, director
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone
SFS Media Super Audio 2-Compact Discs (SACD); Downloads: Mastered for iTunes quality, 24-bit/192kHz Studio Master, and streaming via all major retailers
Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony recorded Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" live at Davies Symphony Hall in June 2017. MTT calls the epic work "a true sonic spectacular," and the exquisitely refined and impassioned performances made good on his claim. In-house label SFS Media recently released the thrilling musical adaption of Shakespeare's great love story featuring a dream cast including Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, as well as the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin.
From the furious opening notes of the Introduction and Prologue to the solemn closing "Oath of Reconciliation," the sweeping drama unfolds with passion and majesty. Sasha Cooke is in glorious voice, plaintive and rich. Her frequent collaborations with MTT have created an artistic bond that shows her at her best. The same could be said about colleagues Nicholas Phan and Luca Pisaroni, brilliant singers who have also become international stars and SFS favorites. The quality of the sound is breathtakingly full, and the high-resolution recording is startlingly present. The live performance is captured with exceptional clarity.
MTT's interpretation is lovingly crafted, and his attention to detail occasionally smooths the drama, but Berlioz's symphonic-choral hybrid is worthy of meticulous care, and the end result is both emotionally and musically satisfying.
The SFS Chorus has also been carefully prepared to make exciting and beautifully blended appearances in the impressive choral passages. Their French pronunciation is idiomatic, and episodes like the revelers returning home after the "Festivities at the Capulets" show personality and convincing involvement.
The big symphonic set-piece, "The Capulet's Garden, Love Scene" portrays the tragically fated lovers in the first innocent throes of romance with moments of shy hesitance and adolescent passion. The sheen of the SFS strings is underpinned with deep support by the full orchestra. The effect is wonderfully touching.
Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" has always been a favorite, cherished for its subtlety and sumptuous musical grandeur. MTT has a history with the young lovers, starting with his previous SFS Media release of the complete score of Bernstein's "West Side Story." In his penultimate year as Music Director, this latest encounter with the legendary couple becomes another sparkling jewel in the recorded legacy.