Tuesday 16 August 2011

Prom 42: Mariinsky/Gergiev - Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake

Royal Albert Hall

Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

I am not one of those who asks, ‘Why perform a ballet score in concert?’ I enjoyed greatly Valery Gergiev’s LSO Proms performance of The Sleeping Beauty a few years ago, Romeo and Juliet from the same forces a little more recently, and have enjoyed more than one concert performance of The Nutcracker. Perhaps this is partly because I am anything but an expert on dance; perhaps it is still more a matter that if I think a score worth listening to, then I am not bothered by what can sometime seem extraneous visual effects. No one in his right mind would say that concert performances were a replacement for stagings, any more than when it comes to opera – though he might care to consider that concert performances of opera sometimes at least have a tendency to superior musical results. Moreover, nobody seems to have a problem with concert performances of Stravinsky’s ballet scores, or Ravel’s, or Debussy’s. And yet, on the evidence of this Prom, Swan Lake may be a different case.

Why so? Well, first, it is not nearly so fine a score as The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, despite undeniable historical importance. It has its moments, unforgettable moments, but it also has more than its fair share of longueurs. Heard in concert, which of course was never the intention, it ends up with an awful lot of resounding conclusions, sometimes, or so it seems, every couple of minutes. Introductions to introductions can seem the order of the day. Moreover, it is difficult to deny the vulgarity of some of Tchaikovsky’s score, likewise its occasional lack of direction. (Those who would take Liszt to task, often extremely unfairly, might direct their attention here.) Again, I am sure these faults will generally be mitigated when staged. But there was a particular quality to this performance that did Swan Lake no favours at all. The Mariinsky forces, as has been their dubious tradition, performed the score not as Tchaikovsky would conceivably have recognised it, but in a ‘performing version’ made in 1895 by Riccardo Drigo. Now this might be fair enough, or at least arguable, when staging the ballet, but in concert performance it smacks of laziness: this is what we do the rest of the year in St Petersburg – or indeed, across town at Covent Garden – so this is what you will hear now. Narrative and musical sense are often obliterated; Drigo’s interpolations, often orchestrations of numbers from Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Piano Pieces, op.72, verge upon – I am trying to be generous – the nonsensical. To his credit, David Nice made no effort to spare Drigo in his programme notes, employing phrases such as ‘stylistically inappropriate and over-extended’. (One other point: it is an excellent idea sometimes to include special notes for children, especially in a work such as this. Must they, however, sound as if they come from a world in which the notorious Section 28 was still a real presence? ‘Marital status: Married – but only for nine weeks, after which he ran away and had a nervous breakdown.’)

What of the mauled score as it came down to us in performance? One would not expect a poor performance of this music from the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and Gergiev, and we certainly did not hear one, though there was a startling breakdown of ensemble in the first act Scene in which the Princess is announced and commands her son, Siegfried, to marry. The Mariinsky strings glistened with vibrato; so, in true Russian style, did the brass. Gergiev could often prove rather driven, yet there was flexibility to be heard too, not least in the Introduction. That oboe swan solo was always delectably taken, against a backdrop of shimmering strings. There were times, however, when the music simply seemed rushed, as if conductor and players were keen to get it over with as soon as possible, the beginning of the second scene a case in point. At the other extreme, the Pas d’action in which prince and swan fall in love sounds over-extended, or at least did so here, in concert, the operatic origins (Tchaikovsky’s opera, Ondine) a little too clear, with violin aria followed by duet for violin and cello. If there were suspicions of autopilot at times, there could, however, be no denying the glorious blazing of moments such as the ball-scene opening of the second act. Soon after, trombones sounded as if they were intoning Fate itself. Indeed, there were several passages in which Gergiev seemed to draw attention to parallels with Tchaikovsky’s symphonies: a double-edged sword, for the lack of symphonic development, especially given Drigo’s bowdlerisation, came equally to the fore. As for the final scene, I am not sure that the turn to the major has ever convinced me musically. It did not here, for which the musicians can hardly be blamed, but was it necessary, or even desirable, for the brass to blare quite so much?

One should not begrudge a first ‘complete’ performance at the Proms, though the description, as we have seen, is at best misleading. I suspect it might be a little while, however, before we hear a second.