Swan Lake is the Madama Butterfly of ballets. The composer in each case was excited by and devoted to his work, which suffered initial failure, but went on to become one of the most popular pieces in its genre. And in both cases, alternative versions survive as a result, though it is the ballet that has endured more ongoing textual uncertainties. Best just to play the Suite then, except that even that choice is not so straightforward.

Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The composer said he “wanted very much to save this music from oblivion, since it contains some fine things” (!)  The Swan Lake ballet score is Tchaikovsky’s Op.20, and the Suite of six movements was published as Op.20a in 1900, quite possibly based on Tchaikovsky’s own selection. It ends satisfyingly with part of the Act 4 finale, becoming the nearest we have to a sort of Swan Lake Symphonic Suite. But another “Op.20a” was issued in the 1950s, which has eight movements – the first five movements as before, but with that final movement replaced by three more characteristic national dances (do keep up…). Last night’s billing listed the “Suite from Swan Lake, Op.20” (sic) which is unarguable, if not enlightening. It was the later eight movement suite that opened the concert, perhaps because its 35 minutes is nearer the right length for a first half than the six-movement version.

But if it offers the less satisfying sequence, the playing in every movement was considerable recompense. The Mariinsky Orchestra, after 236 years of hard work, has become quite some band. First the woodwind and brass look as if they have the newest, shiniest and best instruments in the world, and it often sounds that way – two golden flutes for instance constantly drew the attention of both eye and ear. The familiar first five movements were relished by Gergiev, to the point of a slightly indulgent tempo for the famous waltz, which risked becoming staid at first, until kick-started into ballabille exuberance by the formidable brass section. (I doubt Tchaikovsky would have scored it thus if he had heard the Mariinsky brass liberated from the pit into the very lively acoustic of Cadogan Hall. Tip – anything larger than a small chamber ensemble sounds best from the Gallery). The long opening harp solo of the fourth movement showed off both instrument and player, and the ensuing solos for violin and cello reminded us that string music can be played with exquisite poise and plenty of vibrato, not yet a crime in St Petersburg. And if those three extra dances following the Hungarian Czardas, from Spain, Naples and Poland, had little to do with the story of a Princess turned into a swan, they made an agreeable musical travelogue.

“A conductor is a musician whose instrument is the orchestra”. That saying might annoy a few veteran orchestral players, but perhaps makes more sense when you have directed the same orchestra for over thirty years. Valery Gergiev has earned one of the attributes that longevity brings for a conductor, namely effortless authority. There is also nowadays a hint of sorcery, a whiff of sulphur. He appeared (from behind, and 20 metres away) vaguely to flutter his fingers and somehow the majestically baleful fate motif that launches Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony began, not only with horns and bassoons absolutely together, but with all the fateful menace required. At the Moderato con anima the strings eased into the “movimento di Valse” pretty slowly, as if a waltz, even underpinned by a disquieting accompaniment, had no business in this fateful struggle. But that melody develops rapidly, and Gergiev had no problem shifting sharply between tempi and still making it all sound of a piece. The players responded with bold attack with each return of the opening motif, which delineate the sections of this movement’s compelling form. Sometimes dismissed as ballet music that has got above its station, in these hands it sounded what it is – one of the great symphonic structures.

The lovely Andantino in modo di canzona, progressed seamlessly from the perfect phrasing of the oboe melody through the richest of string playing on to a noble climax. The unanimity of the pizzicato strings of the third movement made them sound like a giant guitar, and the ever more frantic exchanges with the woodwinds were tautly synchronised. There was no pause before the Finale burst in, with more cymbal clashes per page than is quite decent perhaps, but certainly con fuoco as marked, and building inexorably to an apocalyptic return of the fate motif, then a roof-raising coda.

The only possible encore was another characteristic dance from another Tchaikovsky ballet – the brief Trepak (Russian Dance) from The Nutcracker, dispatched with such energetic aplomb one suspected they just might have played it once or twice before.