It was the famous gift of 20,000 francs from the aging Paganini that allowed Berlioz to take time out from the drudgery of music journalism in 1839 and devote himself to a new work. Romeo and Juliet had been close to his heart since his then muse and now wife had played the heroine a decade earlier – but Berlioz was never one to choose the obvious. Shakespeare was too sublime to risk throwing it away on the Opéra (who had recently massacred his Benvenuto Cellini), so the French maverick embarked upon his third, and most unusual symphony to date.
The result was a unique hybrid that even now struggles to find a home in the concert hall. A pity, as with a little imagination (and enough money for the substantial forces), it is full of drama, poetry and intensely original orchestral passages. In short, a masterpiece.
Robin Ticciati has proven himself heir to Colin Davis with his Berlioz series on Linn (a fresh Fantastique, a moving L’Enfance du Christ and a very special Nuits d’Été) and this last instalment is, if anything, even finer. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays superbly and the Linn engineers achieve a fine separation of detail. Ticciati handles the drama with panache, his reading colourful and nuanced, and he’s blessed with excellent soloists: the warm mezzo of Katija Dragojevic, Andrew Staples – light and sassy in Queen Mab – and an authoritative Alastair Miles to close as Friar Lawrence. The chorus too are excellent. A fine alternative to either Davis recording.