You usually have to head upriver a little to spot swans on the Thames, perhaps as far as Putney or Richmond. Yet a flock of them sailed right past the Southbank – at least in the mind's eye – in this final stream in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s digital season, presenting Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in its entirety. Fittingly, it marked Vladimir Jurowski’s swansong from his post after 14 seasons as the LPO's Principal Conductor, their final concert together in their home venue (although Glyndebourne gigs and a lone BBC Prom remain).

Vladimir Jurowski
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

After so many UK concert streams time-restricted to little over an hour (why, when most have been pre-recorded?), here was a proper full-fat, full-length evening of music – the whole of Swan Lake with all the right notes, but not (to paraphrase Eric Morecambe) necessarily in the same order that you’d recognise from an evening at the ballet. Jurowski has previously championed Tchaikovsky’s original 1877 score on disc, arguing that the revisions made by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov when they restaged – nay, salvaged – the work at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in 1895 were detrimental to the musical flow.

Juliette Bausor
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The biggest change you'd notice would be the music for the “Black Swan” pas de deux cropping up in Act 1, danced by peasants, rather than the usual Act 3 when Odile (the evil Rothbart’s daughter) tries to dupe Prince Siegfried into believing that she is his swan princess, Odette. Originally, there was no pas de deux in Act 3 at all. A month after the premiere, prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya demanded a pas de deux here. Petipa choreographed one to a score by Ludwig Minkus; when Tchaikovsky found out, he protested and wrote his own music to fit Petipa’s choreography instead (chapter and verse here). Jurowski reinstates it, along with the Danse russe, composed for Pelageya Karpakova. So not quite the original score, then. 

As a youngster, Jurowski would watch his father Michail conducting Swan Lake at the Stanislavsky. Asked by The Times last month whether he’d ever conducted the ballet in the theatre, Jurowski replied, “No, because I couldn’t bear the thought of conducting it at the wrong speeds.” This is a bit of a red herring in the context of a concert performance though (and on disc) where conductors often take ballet music faster than it could possibly be danced. Not even Natalia Osipova at her fieriest could whip out 32 fouettés at the speed Jurowski drove the score here!

Vladimir Jurowski
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Jurowski leaves the LPO in excellent shape as could be heard throughout this thrilling performance. The luminous strings, even in reduced formation due to social distancing, had plenty of bite when required, the brass never obliterated, the woodwind team blended very well, with Juliette Bausor a standout principal flute, while Ian Hardwick spun poetic lines in Tchaikovsky’s famous oboe motif. Leader Pieter Schoeman and principal cello Kristina Blaumane were outstanding in their solos. Jurowski is technically the finest principal conductor in London. There are never histrionics for their own sake, but clear, concise direction, incisive movements – sometimes with a slightly forbidding countenance –  but always serving the music rather than acting to impress the audience. I could pick any number of highlights: lovely string portamentos in the Danse hongroise; a nimble Danse napolitaine; an intense Act 4 that was treated like a symphonic poem. The Cygnets in Act 2 were a bit po-faced, but Jurowski did allow the “White Swan” pas de deux room to breathe.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Digital presentation was up to the usual high standards. If you selected the subtitle option, you could read captions describing the ballet’s action. Renegade Design’s dramatic lighting for the LPO’s digital season has split critics and the Royal Festival Hall was suitably bathed in blues and greens for much of the evening. The only surprise was that the stage wasn’t swamped in dry ice for the lakeside scenes. Plus the lack of costumes... I could just imagine Jurowski rocking the Rothbart look. 


This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV

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