Is Gennadi Rozhdestvensky the greatest ever conductor of ballet scores? His recordings of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake for the notorious Soviet label Melodiya suggest as much: even if time has moved on in terms of sonic sophistication, the pacing and the proportions between dance numbers still seem perfect. And if on this programme you watch the camera move to the conductor half-way through the Arabian Dance from the second act of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, the elaborate hand choreography suggests that he might have been one of the greatest dancers, too, if only that expressive eloquence had been granted to the legs and the rest of the body.
The two sequences here, taken from the 1981 Proms, represent a peak of his three-year tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And looking back at the audacity of his programmes, it seems a pity that not everything was filmed for the BBC. Even so, the present twinning is a happy one: Tchaikovsky realised how much hen as much as any other Russian composer, owed to Glinka, the official founding father of a national music: "I am a progeny of Glinka," he proudly declared in 1881.
The second part of this film displays the second act of The Nutcracker absolutely complete: not for Rozhdestvensky distinguished fellow-conductor Yuri Temirkanov's messing with the sequence. As conductor of the Bolshoi ballet from the early 1950s – he conducted The Nutcracker there for the first timme at the age of twenty – Rozhdestvensky knows all too well where a choreographer's whim might lead (it's at its worst in the Lavrovsky film of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet starring the great Galina Ulanova, for which Rozhdestvensky conducted the soundtrack; he was able to make amends with his complete recording later in the 1950s).
There may be conductors fussier with the detail, but none that allows this masterpiece among ballet scores to speak more eloquently for itself.
Verbier Festival 2011
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra