, June 2011
As the 2011 Proms seasons rapidly approaches, this DVD whisks us back thirty seasons to two fine Proms given by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra which, by coincidence, also hail from a season exactly twenty seasons before my first teenage Promenade. That first taste of the Proms magic also featured the BBC Symphony in Russian classics and was to be conducted by another great Russian maestro, Yevgeny Svetlanov; alas, he was ill and died the following year and I never got to see him. Rozhdestzensky is still with us but, for some reason, only a very occasional visitor to the UK and more’s the pity; in his excellent booklet notes, David Nice asks ‘Is Gennadi Rozhdestvensky the greatest ever conductor of ballet scores?’, and, on the evidence of this Nutcracker, which is ideally paced at every turn, it’s hard to disagree.
Although proportioned something like a conventional concert programme, this selection of performances actually derives from two 1981 Proms, during Rozhdestvensky’s relatively brief tenure as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony. The 2nd Act of the Nutcracker was filmed at the end of July and was preceded by a choral version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain (the choir can be seen seated behind the orchestra during the Tchaikovsky), Prokofiev’s Ugly Ducking and Scriabin’s Prometheus. The Glinka items are extracted from a daring programme, mixing Viennese waltzes with double piano concertos, including Bartók’s Concerto for two pianos and percussion. A punchy and swift performance of Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila opens the programme, followed by three wonderful dances from his opera A Life for the Tsar, the second of which has an energetically skipping rhythmic quality and which I recall fondly from its use in the climactic ball sequence from Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, a remarkable single-take trawl through Russian history.
One of the advantages of seeing rather than merely hearing a performance such as this is the chance it affords to study the conductor’s technique, and Rozhdestvensky’s manner throughout the programme is minimal but precisely calibrated. The camera frequently cuts to an inert Rozhdestvensky, apparently doing nothing at all, but he is the master of conveying a world of meaning with a raised eyebrow and his hands can suggest a sculptor at work when he wishes. As already noted, tempos are perfectly judged in the Tchaikovsky, treading a fine line between grandeur and excitement and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing is every bit as plush and lively as one would expect from a Russian orchestra. Rozhdestvensky’s speeds are adjusted for the concert hall: some of them would be tricky to dance to, such as a sweeping but forward driving Pas de deux (The Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy). It’s only a shame that we couldn’t have the complete balle…but it’s terrific to have at least half and it’s a performance I can imagine returning to often.