Last night I went to see a ballet performance by Ballet Central as part of the Newbury Spring Festival. They danced a mixture of classic and modern short ballets and they were amazing. Usually when I watch a ballet it isn't quite the same they perform to pre-recorded music rather than an orchestra. However in this instance it wasn't the case, the dancers were so good that the music was secondary but there was also a very energetic pianist playing an electric keyboard. It was almost as much fun watching him as it was the ballet. He must have been exhausted by the end of the performance.
This week's work and recording is Swan Lake by Pyotr llyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), one of the great romantic ballets from the ballet repertoire. Swan Lake was commissioned by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, Director of Moscow Imperial Theatres. It was unusual for an outsider to be commissioned for such a work as the job normally went to musicians who worked for the ballet companies. The scenario usually in four acts was fashioned from Russian folk tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. Premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 4th March 1877 it was not well received and Tchaikovsky's masterful score was lost in the debacle of poor performance and a bad production, critics also blamed his score as far too complicated to dance to. Yet the fact remains that the original version survived for six years and 41 performances. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 believing his work to be a failure, however in 1895 it was revived with a new production and became a huge success. Swan Lake with the sheer beauty of it's melodies and the richness of it's orchestral score was recognised as a turning point in ballet music.
Tchaikovsky began taking piano lessons aged five and displayed an early passion for music, but his parents hoped he would grow up to work in the civil service. Aged ten he was sent to boarding school in St. Petersburg which he hated, furthermore his mother, whom he adored, died of cholera when he was fourteen. After a stint working in the Ministry of Justice he became more and more fascinated in music and eventually enrolled in the newly formed St. Petersburg Conservatory. Struggling with pressure from society to surpress his homosexuality, in 1877 he married a young music student Antonina Milynkova. His marriage was a disaster and he left his wife within weeks of the marriage. There followed a nervous breakdown and an attempt at suicide before he fled abroad. He was able to resign from his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatoire thanks to the patronage of a wealthy widow called Nadezhda von Meck who provided him with a monthly allowance for fifteen years. They became great friends but it was stated under the terms of her patronage that they should never meet. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 from cholera although it is rumoured that he committed suicide following a homosexual sex scandal with a member of the Russian aristocracy.
The recording I recommend of Swan Lake is by the high profile Russian conductor Valerie Gergiev and the Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre of St Petersburg. Gergiev is very charismatic if not hangdog and dishevelled in appearance, he has an extraordinary ability to be in two places at once but is always late! He is General and Artistic Director of the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, he has just recently resigned from being Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and is shortly to take up the role of Principle Director of the Munich Philharmonic as well as being Artistic Director of a number of important European Festivals. He has recently been in the spotlight due to his ties and support of President Putin which have sparked protests by Gay and Human Rights activists at some of his concerts in the West. However, he devotes himself round the clock to his profession and conducts some 250 concerts per year.
You can either download the complete Swan Lake, or those clever people at Decca have produced a highlights version, so both are listed below as well as the DVD.
This clip makes me want to rush out to see the ballet - youtube
Download the complete ballet from iTunes
Download the highlights from iTunes
Buy DVD from Amazon or Blue Ray version from Amazon
Buy the CD from Amazon
Buy the highlights from Amazon