S&H Concert review

STRAVINSKY The Firebird (Fokine); Agon (Balanchine); Les Noces (Nijinska). The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, 2 May 2001 (PGW)

How many Stravinsky concerts have there been in London during the last two years or so? Is there a tendency to take him for granted? This opportunity to Hear and See danced again three of the greatest ballet scores, his first, the last and Les Noces from 1923, was not to be missed.

The whole evening reinforced my suspicion that concert performances of these masterpieces, and competitive high-powered Hi-Fi recordings of the scores, miss half the point. They were conceived as music of the theatre and we have been dulled by hearing them too often, Firebird also in different versions which failed to fulfil Stravinsky's financial hopes of getting round copyright difficulties. Russia did not participate in the Berne Copyright Convention, and Stravinsky grew to turn against having to conduct his most popular work, from which he had made little money. He did so again at his last concert appearance in London (1965) which I attended, and at which Agon was (I think) premiered under Craft, to considerable audience reservation about its strangeness.

The scores were very decently performed by the ROH Orchestra under John Carewe, and although neighbours found Firebird muted and underwhelming in the stalls, I was content to remind myself that this must have been closer to the original sound, before Firebird had become a staple orchestral showpiece with which to demonstrate sound reproducing equipment. Watching the cleverly planned build up from orchestral prelude, to the appearance of the Firebird (Leanne Benjamin) [left] flitting across stage, Ivan (Jonathan Cope) joining her and doing marvellous, seemingly effortless, lifts, then gradually joined by the Princesses (who danced more easily than they caught magic apples!) long before the stage is filled by the full corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet and its Ballet School, the music took on a new light. Kostchei (David Drew) was suitably larger than life and the whole ended with the marriage celebration with full Russian pomp, very much in the vein of a big choral scene in a Rimsky opera.

Because ROH could only spare a single press ticket, I saw Agon & Les Noces from a perch on high from where I always saw opera & ballet in my youth. There, as is well known, the sound is good as anywhere, and the delicate instrumentation of Agon came up bright and clear. Totally abstract, Balanchine's dances counterpoint the music with inventive precision - as Noel Goodwin writes in the programme, in no other choreography is it 'so desirable to see with the ears and hear with the eyes' - Agon has been thought to represent the closest integration of dance and music that the 20th Century had witnessed. Based on permutations of the number twelve (12 notes of the chromatic scale, 12 dancers variously divided into threes and fours) the high spot of the whole evening for me (and confirmed by the ovation it received) was the moving Pas de deux given with restrained eroticism by Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta; that section of the score can sound over long in the concert hall.

Les Noces had Zenaida Yanowsky as the bride at the still centre of the rituals of a Russian marriage as seen by Nijinska, who revived it for the Royal Ballet in 1966. A cool ballet as much about group patterns as the noisy realities of real weddings (caught by the voices) and one which I found disconcerting at first viewing in the '60s, but absorbing upon renewed acquaintance thirty years on (despite neighbours who kept muttering that they could not get on with it!).

A good evening in The Royal Opera House, which was being filmed by the BBC for future TV transmission and confirmed my growing belief that, despite camera limitations, ballet, and especially modern dance, offers the best value for home viewing on DVD. I urge you to see the Balachine Agon on BBC TV and then try Nederlands Dans Theater Black and White Arthaus 100 084 as a start.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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