Following the Mariinsky Ballet's season at the Royal Opera House, the company's orchestra sidled over to Kensington to perform one of the highlights of its Covent Garden programme at the Proms minus the dancers. It's a procedure that would have surprised Tchaikovsky, who delighted in ballet. The fairytale plots he set to music opened up a vein of fantasy that brought out the best in him. There's no shortage of emotional depth in the finest parts of Swan Lake, though even the composer might have admitted that certain sections are there primarily to provide accompaniment to a visual experience rather than to hold attention in their own right.
The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre must have played Tchaikovskys Swan Lake dozens or even hundreds of times, and there were occasions in this performance under Valery Gergiev when it sounded like it. While the orchestra clearly has the music in its blood, there was a touch of anaemia here that could have done with a shot of galvanising iron from the podium, especially in the first act.
Things did pick up after the interval, but there remained an underlying feeling that the orchestra was merely playing the ballet rather than working to recreate its atmosphere, its charm, its drama.
The Arts Desk
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, Siegfrieds Act III solo).
The Financial Times
It was a bold idea of his to bring Tchaikovskys Swan Lake. This was the first time the complete score had been performed at the Proms the one proviso being that Gergiev brought the traditional Mariinsky performing version of the ballet, as rearranged by Riccardo Drigo and it took a splendid debut bow. Gergiev brought panache to every dance, without the melodramatic exaggerations favoured by some Russian conductors of old. The Mariinsky orchestra responded with playing that was subtle and romantically coloured, while retaining a spring in its step that made the music as uplifting in the concert hall as it can be in the theatre. Played like this, Tchaikovskys ballets deserve to be heard away from the stage more often.