It is not only in concert halls that the finest orchestras are to be found. Warmly expressive strings, forward but not over-bright brass, a well-moulded, recognisably Russian orchestral blend – this had to be the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, let out of their orchestra pit at home in St Petersburg for a summer trip overseas.
They gave one of the best showings so far by a visiting orchestra at the BBC Proms this season. Gergiev is hard to beat in the Russian romantics, especially theatrical works that he knows inside out thanks to his position as artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, where he has responsibility for ballet as well as opera.
It was a bold idea of his to bring Tchaikovsky’s 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, Tchaikovsky’s ballets deserve to be heard away from the stage more often.
The previous night’s Prom had also focused mostly on music that was infrequently heard. On September 12 1963, Benjamin Britten conducted a Proms concert consisting entirely of his own music and that programme was recreated here with just one exception: Britten’s arrangement of a Purcell Chacony was replaced by a new, rather tinselly version by Joby Talbot. Otherwise, everything remained in place. The BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a powerful, no-holds-barred performance of the Sinfonia da Requiem under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth. The rather dry Cantata misericordium and the contrastingly boisterous Spring Symphony, one of Britten’s problem children, drew some decent singing from the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, with Alan Oke the most engaging of the soloists. Perhaps the latter work’s celebratory, very English mood might make it a good candidate for the Olympics year.