The audience was there to witness Valery Gergiev in action. That, at least, seems the most likely reason for Prom 46 being a sell-out. After all, whilst a concert performance of an opera still possesses characters and singing, surely the same can’t be said for a ballet without the dancing?
But, from the moment that Gergiev raised his baton, it was clear just how much The Sleeping Beauty’s music alone has to offer. Indeed, Gergiev, with his trademark style of generating as much movement in his hands as his arms, took the opportunity to perform it in ways that it might never normally be heard.
One particular highlight was the Prologue’s Pas de six in which the orchestra swept the audience from the most tender oboe solo of the Fairy of Purity’s variation, through pizzicato, brass and wind trills to the full-blown waltz of the Lilac Fairy. Though this final variation seemed too straight forward to possess much hidden potential, it was played out to brilliant effect. Act One’s Valse (the famous ‘garland waltz’) was also memorable for being played, most unusually, with a quiet understated poignancy. The freedom enjoyed by not having to be subservient to ballerinas was clear, although one sensed that had dancers been inserted at any stage the delivery would still have worked for them.
Lasting over three hours, this Prom also enabled The Sleeping Beauty to be performed with none of the cuts that are usually made. This introduced some interesting music that otherwise an audience might never have heard, and allowed further connections to be made between Tchaikovsky’s own piece of 1889 and those of other composers. For example, Act Two’s Scene et Danses revealed the influence of Mozart, whilst the ‘sleep’ chords of the Entr’acte symphonique (Le Sommeil) et Scene emulated Wagner’s Die Walkure when Brunnhilde is sent into an enchanted sleep.
With the audience transfixed throughout, I was left wondering how many symphonies (actually written to take centre stage) could actually sustain interest for over three hours. The playing was copybook stuff, and the best type at that, since the underlying technical precision was used as a basis for generating energy and excitement in the music. Indeed, following such a successful evening, I was left with just two questions for new Proms Director, Roger Wright. Will it be Swan Lake or The Nutcracker next year, and will the BBC have the courage to televise it next time?