Prokofiev’s ballet music for Romeo and Juliet is one of the most well loved works of the twentieth century. The repertoire for the viola is relatively thin on masterpieces. One would think that violists everywhere would pounce on the opportunity to play this music. Sadly, the music on this disk is a rarity, and often played as a party trick, rather than as a centerpiece. Could it be because the music, which was arranged by Prokofiev’s friend and master violist Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, is so great in difficulty? Could it be because publisher Boosey and Hawks charges $70 for the sheet music? Whatever the reason, this music is criminally underplayed.
Here the music gets the treatment for which it’s been yearning since conception. Typically violists will pick and choose a handful of movements to show off their facility on the instrument. Here, violist Matthew Jones and Pianist Michael Hampton have rearranged the suite so as to be played in the order of events from the ballet. When supplemented with three new arrangements, essentially every major musical theme from the original ballet is represented here. The result is an evening with Prokofiev’s great Romeo and Juliet ballet, narrated by a viola and a piano rather than a full symphony orchestra.
These arrangements were envisioned as musical and technical showpieces – music arranged by a violist, for violists – and one can hear many unusual playing techniques: artificial harmonics (The Street Awakens), ponticello, or playing on top of the bridge (Death of Mercutio), ricochet bowing (Masks), and double stops (playing two notes at once) galore. Mr. Jones has a keen awareness of the challenges in the score, and passes all tests with flying colors. Sometimes his playing feels a bit on the safe side though, and some of his tempos are a bit slow for my taste, particularly Juliet as a Young Girl. Perhaps Mr. Jones can be forgiven for wanting to respect the difficulty of the music. Similarly, some of the playing is wanting for expression. The Death of Tybalt especially feels as though Mr. Jones is simply happy to be able to play all of the notes, which he does admirably. However, each of these moments is counterbalanced with music-making of great imagination, such as the artfully played Dance of the Lily Maidens, or the Carnival scene, which is played with wit and verve.
Also making an appearance on this disc is Rivka Golani. The two selections for two violas and piano are the highlights of this disk, as the inventive arranging of Borisovsky is played with great sensitivity and cooperation from the violists. The Morning Serenade might be my favorite track on this disc.
All in all, this is a well played disc of excellent music. In typical Naxos fashion, the packaging is nothing to write home about, although the liner notes, written by Mr. Jones himself, do offer good insight on the origins of the music. The combination of good playing, fine music, and low price make this disc an excellent buy. What really makes this disc stand out, though, is the way in which the music is presented. In putting the entire suite in the spotlight, and presenting it in the spirit of the ballet, Mr. Jones has filled a gaping hole in the recorded repertoire of the viola, and created a fun and original concert experience for all listeners.