Three years ago Valery Gergiev led the LSO in a concert performance of The Sleeping Beauty that kept the audience transfixed throughout its three hour duration. Last night he repeated the magic with Swan Lake, leading the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, which has just completed the Mariinsky Ballets summer season at the Royal Opera House.
Concert performances of ballets allow conductors to concentrate on what sounds best musically, rather than ballerinas requirements. While, however, Gergiev did this with The Sleeping Beauty, one sensed that had dancers been inserted at any moment the delivery would still have worked for them. This was not always the case with Swan Lake in an exploration that felt especially charged, though seldom if ever inappropriate. The weak moments were few and far between, although the orchestra took a little time to warm up. The sound of the Introduction felt slightly dry, although the tumultuous central section in which Rothbarts violence flares was skilfully managed by the brass, the trombone in particular pitching the dynamic variation within its phrases perfectly. The orchestra was into stride by the start of Act I, in which the Valse was especially interesting. The opening theme was played at an exciting tempo, the second so terrifyingly forthright that no ballerina could have made a smooth, let alone, meaningful transition to it. When, however, the first theme recurred Gergiev indicated his demand for the most quiet, tentative sound imaginable.
In Act I the spirit of the festivities that occur on stage shone through so strongly that we could practically see the Tutor tumbling to the ground as we heard the Pas daction. Less captivating were the links between the dances, which possessed little meaning in the absence of the scuttles or gestures that we would witness on stage, although these could hardly have been omitted.
Much of the success of Tchaikovskys score rests on his skilful employment of tension and release. Just when things could not feel more emotionally charged, he suddenly introduces a new, more playful theme. These moments were played out to brilliant effect, and no better than in the transition from Odettes solo dance in the Moderato assai to the corps de ballets dance in the Allegro vivace that leads to the close of the first lakeside scene.
Paradoxically, since there was nothing to appeal to the eye, there were ways in which this performance was more viscerally thrilling than a fully staged one. In particular, the four national dances in Act II (Act III in some versions) came thick and fast, leaving a trail of excitement in their wake. One weaker moment came in the Allegro moderato that directly precedes the ending. Here the violin sound, in particular, felt too strident to create the required sense of sorrowful lament. Whether that matters when we dont need to witness that mood on stage is not beyond debate, but the music itself lends itself to that emotion and was not played in a way that really suited it.
This performance was of Riccardo Drigos revised 1895 version of Tchaikovskys score (the one we are used to hearing today), and it was only right that this orchestra should have performed that, given its history and affinity with it. However, with due deference to its length and any other practicalities, a performance of the original 1877 score could be a future Proms project. The programme stated that Evening-length ballets are not heard in concert performance with anything like the frequency of unabridged operas. Given the tremendous nights that the Proms has already generated with them, I hope that it will go further in bucking the general trend.