Thanks to enlightened artistic and pricing policies – and to television relays, videos and DVDs - ballet performances are no longer quite the exclusive social preserve that they used to be.
As a result, more people have become familiar with the great ballet scores as they are played to accompany dancers on a stage as opposed to hearing them only on disc – and there really can be a great deal of difference between the two, especially if the conductor on a recording has no experience of actually leading a performance in a theatre.
The most obvious giveaways of “non-theatrical” performances are tempi that even the most accomplished dancers might find it very difficult to dance to. You might, incidentally, think that such things would have no rationale to them at all in scores specifically written for the ballet, but they actually reflect a perennial and genuine area of controversy as to whether a conductor should either lead the performance and challenge dancers to rise to new heights in meeting his musical demands or else make the music serve the dancers’ existing abilities. For the transcript of a thought-provoking BBC Radio 3 discussion on the issue, see here.
The other obvious clue that characterises “non-theatrical” performances on disc is their tendency to skate right over those slight hesitations or pauses that experienced conductors insert so as to allow for and facilitate the on-stage action – even including the second or two where one dancer moves aside and is replaced centre-stage by another, though on paper the music moves seamlessly on. In a 2002 Daily Telegraph interview Vasko Vassilev, Creative Producer of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and leader of its orchestra, put it thus: "Conducting ballet is also about understanding the experience of the physical tradition - that here, you must wait a little [for a brilliant spin, or a poised arabesque] where you wouldn't in a concert”, though he then concluded rather pessimistically that “I don't think in colleges... conductors are taught this, and how you can still make beautiful music” (for the full interview – provocatively entitled Why are ballet conductors so bad? - see here).
This new account of the first of Tchaikovsky’s three full-length ballet scores falls very much into the “non-theatrical” camp and one must assume, therefore, that Mikhail Pletnev was choosing to keep any image of dancers on the stage well out of his mind’s eye as he directed the orchestra that he himself founded twenty years ago. The result is certainly an exciting – if, occasionally, a rather over-excited – performance that, with no real-life dancing to slow it down, would go down a storm in the concert hall or, indeed, in your own living room. All sections of the Russian National Orchestra play with immense virtuosity and cope with their conductor’s demands with admirable aplomb and Ondine’s technical team, headed by Rainer Maillard, has certainly produced a spectacular and glittering recording.
Audiophiles and lovers of Tchaikovsky’s score per se will thus probably delight in this two-disc set and, from their perspective, that is rightly so. But if you, like me, have seized upon the recent proliferation of ballet performances on DVD to build up your own library and you now prefer to watch this or any other ballet rather than simply to listen to it, then you too may feel somewhat alienated by Pletnev’s somewhat hard-driven approach.