Holst’s own copy of the first publication of The Planets

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Holst’s The Planets, Ryan Wigglesworth’s first time voyaging our Solar System: ‘Mars’ – fleet, furious, an unstoppable war machine; ‘Venus’ – idyllic; ‘Mercury’ – swift, airborne, skipping around, light of texture; ‘Jupiter’ – too fast for jollity, but hymn-tune nobly broad; ‘Saturn’ – the Grim Reaper’s tread less than implacable if plenty of uproar at the midpoint (tubular bells to the fore) but somewhat impatient with the ethereal coda during which more could have been made of dynamics; ‘Uranus’ – appropriately frenetic (befitting a mad magician) and pile-driving (battering-ram timpani) with audible organ glissando (bonus); ‘Neptune’ – glacial, distant, fading from view as the ladies of the BBC Symphony Chorus melted into the mist…

The concert opened with Death and Transfiguration, a suitably subdued beginning to the piece, a darkened room, a dying man breathing his last, until he stirs to recall past achievements and regrets not enough of them – less than fevered here as part of a performance that appreciated Strauss’s orchestral skills and suggestive powers without quite presenting the high theatre of Last Rites and the chilling anticipation of What’s Next? (if anything), although the build-up to the transcending climax touched nerves but the moment itself was a little pushed-through, as at other times, for all the painstaking preparation and playing.

Death in its omnipresence linked well to Matthew Kaner’s new BBC commission concerning a man grieving for his lost daughter – she’s named Pearl and he’s a jeweller – and when he falls asleep he dreams of Paradise and Pearl’s part in it. It’s an expressive setting of a modern translation of a medieval poem – a baritone as the man, Roderick Williams typically mellifluous and with crystal-clear enunciation – a commenting choir and an orchestra progressing the whole. That the visions are the result of a dream is manifestly suggested, almost as if we in the here and now are looking back centuries – there are archaic elements in the music that sit well with Kaner’s accommodating lyricism – but over thirty minutes it’s a style, ‘twentieth-century English traditional’, if difficult to pin down, that became rather limited to sustain the whole.