The popular misconception of Tchaikovsky as a composer of splashy orchestra showpieces is hard to shake. Valery Gergiev seemed at pains to put this to rights and celebrate the fastidious craftsman in his complete performance of the composer's most "classical" ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. Such an event is a rarity in concert hall or theatre – at best we probably hear only about 80 per cent of the score.
But what price completeness? In his busy schedule, could Gergiev find the time to prepare so subtle and varied a score – three hours of music – with an orchestra to whom it is largely unfamiliar? For all the beauties of the London Symphony Orchestra's playing, the unforced errors, tentative ensemble and air of circumspection gave us our answer. From the opening bars, where the cut and thrust of the wicked fairy Carabosse is so radiantly countered by the Lilac Fairy's enlightening E major, Gergiev seemed to start his journey with the brakes on – staid, controlled, cautious. Eyes pinned to the score, it was as if he was making concessions to dancers who weren't there. The "theatre" of the occasion was lacking.
Even sure-fire numbers like the joyous polonaise and furious mazurka in Act III managed to keep their powder dry, while the grandiosity of the final act pas de deux was in no sense a moment of sublimation for the heroine Aurora. That came earlier in the evening with the celebrated "Rose Adagio", always magnificent. The classical coolness and poise of the original choreography, executed to music of searing heat, is one of the great contradictions in all art.
Gergiev does appreciate this innate "classicism", no question, and the allusions to Mozart, Mendelssohn, and others were among the most effective parts of the performance. Limpid clarinet solos from Andrew Marriner, plaintive and bittersweet work from first oboe Emanuel Abbühl, and an elegant virtuosity from the guest leader Andrew Haveron in his great solos were the evening's real pleasures; these and the moments of mystic minimalism like the "Panorama", where the Lilac Fairy's boat transports the Prince on a gentle pulse of woodwinds against weightless violins. But refinement won out over excitement – this fairy tale was incomplete.
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