“See the music, hear the dance.” Few have encapsulated the relationship between dance and music as deftly as the great choreographer George Balanchine. Presenting ballet scores in concert raises issues. Liberated from the need to accommodate dancers, conductors have freer rein over tempi and can shape lines as they wish. Yet it’s still dance music and when Santtu-Matias Rouvali directed his own selection of music from Swan Lake in this Philharmonia matinee, although I did not necessarily expect to see the dance, I did rather hope to feel it.

Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

This was rarely the case in an unusual selection of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s first ballet. Sudden accelerations and massive ritardandos in the Waltz indicated Rouvali’s interventionist approach, not a waltz inviting much dance. The Finn often equated diminuendos with a slowing of tempi, particularly in the three numbers from the Act 1 pas de trois, while codas were invariably loud and fast. There was some agreeable playing. Timothy Rundle phrased the oboe’s “swan theme” sensitively, echoed thunderously by the trombones, while leader Zsolt-Tihamér Vistonay’s nutty violin tone excelled in the introduction to the rarely heard Act 3 pas de deux composed by Tchaikovsky for Anna Sobeshchanskaya. (The “Black Swan” pas de deux usually heard now is to music shunted across from Act 1). After a tame Spanish Dance and a portentous opening to the Neapolitan Dance, everything clicked into place for the ballet’s finale, red-blooded and dramatic.

The first half of the programme had been much stronger. Two days before Bonfire Night, Rouvali lit the fuse on a tightly choreographed Fireworks display courtesy of Stravinsky, a precise beat and dapper cueing making this exquisite miniature fizz and sparkle.

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto is occasionally performed in its original version (usually by Alexander Ghindin, as at the BBC Proms this summer), but the composer’s revision (1917/19) is more usually heard and for good reason. With laboured passages in the first movement ironed out and a greatly rewritten finale, Rachmaninov’s revised concerto is more taut. Nikolai Lugansky performed it with all the poetry one has come to expect from this aristocrat of the piano. I last heard him play this concerto in Paris and this was every inch as beautiful. He possesses a formidable technique, but never flaunts it in your face. Yes, there was the requisite steel in the ferocious start to the cadenza, but there was much delicacy too, Lugansky caressing a phrase and then offering it to Rouvali for the Philharmonia to matching with great sensitivity.

The Andante was full of introspection and yearning – good old Russian melancholy – while the closing pages of the finale truly danced. Now just imagine if Balanchine had ever set Rachmaninov…