wed 27/01/2021

BBC Proms: Swan Lake, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Gergiev | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Swan Lake, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Gergiev

BBC Proms: Swan Lake, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Gergiev

Listening to a ballet without its pictures frees the original composition

The fact that the world’s most popular ballet score had never, until last night, been performed in full at the Proms says something about the lowly regard in which musical circles long held composition for ballet. The fact that the Albert Hall’s capacity audience bayed six times for Valery Gergiev’s return to take their appreciation of his and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s performance of it last night says something about it being about time that musical circles stopped being so snobby.

Those of us who haunt ballet theatres have become inured to shoddy performances of Swan Lake, its dumbing down to wallpaper for deeply lugubrious swan scenes or gaudy court scenes. But when on a rare occasion a perceptive conductor seizes a ballet score and performs it as music, per se, and asks all to listen to it without imposed pictures, certain works stand proud as great music. Swan Lake was played last night by an orchestra that knows its worth, as well as knowing it backwards.

Familiarity can breed contempt in the playing - I did not find contempt last night, not least because this was an unfamiliar way to experience the music. Even if I was faintly disappointed that we heard not the original 1877 version but the bowdlerised 1895 performing version created after Tchaikovsky’s death (the Royal Ballet dances this familiar arrangement), I was intrigued by many surprises, things the theatre presentation often elides over or only partially represents.

I’m thinking for instance of those melting bits of melody given three times to the mother of Prince Siegfried, the Queen who urges her son to marry. Can it have been close to Tchaikovsky’s heart that he handed her the oboe so frequently in tender cantabiles that belie the stern mimes that the Imperial Ballet’s choreographer Marius Petipa allocated to the dancer performing her role? Normally, you pay hardly any attention to the Queen - but last night how could you not be touched by the hesitancy of her first Act I theme asking Siegfried to stop being a layabout, get married and relieve her of the burden of rule? How could you not be charmed by the courteous elation with which her tune thanks the deceiving guests, Rothbart and Odile, for their ability to lift her son’s heart in Act III? This is an astonishingly touching musical sketch of a mother distracted by the burden of royal duties who nevertheless deeply loves her son. You don’t feel that in a choreographed staging. She just comes on in a big loud dress, mimes a bit, and goes away.

Mariinsky Swan Lake Somova SarafanovStill, the most significant interest last night was the deafening triumphalism with which Gergiev’s forces attacked the ending, the numerous brass and percussion players contributing to a fanfare of overwhelming victory. That is thought-provoking. That is how the music sounds, when played straight, and must have sounded in Russian concert halls - so no wonder those Russian/Soviet productions of the ballet where they fashion a “happy ending” for Odette and Siegfried, in which most Western balletomanes find it impossible to believe.

For we've made up our minds by absorbing the pathos of the visual images of the wounded bird, the frail-bodied Swan Queen who has been betrayed, and who in no way could pluck a contented future with her weak, flawed Prince. She must die - you see that in the staging. Yet, last night, what you heard in Gergiev’s driving to the finish was not some powerfully ambivalent Wagnerian settling of scores between nature and man, but a very firm insistence that crescendo to fortissimo conquers all doubts. Until last night I thought it was purely for political reasons that the Russian staging tradition is for a "happy" ending. Now I suspect they do it for reasons of how their orchestral forces play the music.

A fascinating experience, then. Gergiev is a strange being to head a ballet theatre: he conducts with his eyes determinedly shut, I think, stripping ballet scores of their choreographic varnish, which in most cases has left thick clots all over dansante pulses. It was a relief to hear certain waltzes handed their natural lilt and stitched naturally into their context, too fast for the iconic choreography to be performed to them in today's indulgently emphatic style (the rocking pas de trois of Act I, Odette's delicate Act II solo, Siegfried’s Act III solo).

Largely, I agree with the lucid programme notes by my colleague David Nice that the 1895 performing version prepared by the Mariinsky conductor/composer Riccardo Drigo does, in key places, undermine the purely musical experience. Yet this is music written for theatre, and I can’t help being glued to the images of the choreography that Lev Ivanov, Petipa's colleague, created for the swans in the "white" acts II and IV. The pictures have taken over my hearing.

I know with my ears that that thread-like little waltz that Drigo arranged from a Tchaikovsky piano piece in the last act which suddenly impinges on Tchaikovsky’s great sweeping musical vision of tragedy is a defacement.

Listen to Sviatoslav Richter play the waltz, from Op 72 (No 15)

Yet with my eyes I still see the need for that pathetic last dance where Odette frailly signals to the Prince that, yes, she knows they love each other, but that this is too puny a place for her, to exist in this little waltz of guilty knowledge of his betrayal, and she is destined to immolate herself in a greater finish. And so, as we pick up Tchaikovsky’s original symphonic vision, she does - and Siegfried suddenly learns from her example, and follows her. The fragile little waltz makes the double suicide mean more.

I applaud Gergiev, but I wish he would roughly shake those turgid conductors under his command at the Mariinsky Theatre who bow to the ballet coaches' decrees and don't insist that they listen. For it is music that Petipa and Ivanov were listening to, and to which they choreographed. The music comes first.


A fascinating perspective, Ismene. I think you're quite right that the music speaks transcendence and triumph at the end, by which time the swan theme has moved from its frail beginnings on oboe against harp and strings, and in the minor, to full orchestra, fortissimo. and in the major. Quite a few folk seem to have been misled into thinking that the end has been tampered with too - it hasn't, though it's been a bit cut. I just think it was a shame Gergiev bypassed the chance to present the last act in concert as Tchaikovsky seamlessly wrote it - and his last, melancholy swans's dance, which we just didn't get, is a much finer piece of music than any of the Op. 72 piano pieces featured, in any shape or form. The difference is our perspectives: you see the Petipa/Ivanov choreography in the concert hall, I'm outraged to miss the 'right' music in the ballet theatre.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's magnificent Samsova/Wright production has a much fuller edition of the score and excludes all Drigo's interpolations.

Very interesting angle – I thought it would be frustrating to listen to the music without having some Swans popping around, but – at least under your pen – the score proved to be self-sufficient! Regarding the last paragraph, I personally think dancers should have their say as well as singers, as they need the music to suit them to do their best. Also, from Marius Petipa’s Memories, we know he used to give very strict instructions to Tchaikovsky for his new commissions, mentioning the length, time signature, kind of dance he wanted, if it was for a solo or a corps etc. for each part of the ballet, minute by minute. So the music may not have always come first? (unfortunately I don’t have the book at hand, but I wonder if he didn't choreograph occasionally before getting the music..)

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