John Wilson and the Philharmonia in a Distinguished Account of The Planets


Vaughan Williams and Holst: Sarah Tynan (soprano), Philharmonia Voices (ladies), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.1.2017. (AS)

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.7, Sinfonia Antartica
Holst – The Planets, Op.32

During this year’s Prom season John Wilson directed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a programme consisting of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony and The Planets (review), and it was interesting now to hear Holst’s work in combination with another Vaughan Williams symphony. This Philharmonia concert was part of a slowly ongoing series in which the orchestra and John Wilson are exploring VW’s symphonic output. Formerly relegated to Sunday afternoons, this series’ latest offering now found itself placed in the orchestra’s regular evening schedules, presumably because of an anticipated good audience attendance for the popular Planets suite. This prognosis was entirely correct, and thus the Sinfonia Antartica was played in front of a bigger gathering than it would normally expect to attract.

During the interval after the symphony was performed a distinguished colleague declared the work to be a ‘masterpiece’.  I can’t quite agree. Certainly, the first movement, with its wonderful opening melody, evoking both the grandeur of frozen southern landscapes and the dangers that await those who dare to invade it, is surely the composer at his best, the chilling, menacing atmosphere here enhanced by a wordless female chorus and solo soprano in eerie harmonies. All this was magnificently presented by Wilson and his combined forces.

The Scherzo, which depicts the outward voyage, contains the score’s only music that might be called energetically optimistic. There’s even an episode of comedy as the film’s camera alights on the antics of a colony of penguins. Though Wilson proved to be an attentive guide to the movement he could have charged this episode in a more playful, lively manner so as to provide contrast with what had gone before and what was to come. The third movement, ‘Landscape’, is full of the most intriguing and original instrumental sonorities, but it is still evidently descriptive music written to accompany visual images. The programme annotator rightly described the following ‘Intermezzo’ as having a ‘distinctly episodic structure’. In both these movements Wilson did his considerable best to render the content as concert music, but somehow it remained stubbornly cinematic in nature. In the last movement, ‘Epilogue’, there is a defiant vigour in the music at first, well brought out by Wilson, but soon the symphony’s opening melody returns, in slightly subdued form, along with the chorus and soloist and the work comes to a desolate end.

At his Prom performance of the Ninth Symphony Wilson had produced a revelatory performance. In the Sinfonia Antartica he did his level best, but the work itself did not give him the interpretative scope that the Ninth had given him.

Rather curiously, Wilson’s Prom account of The Planets had been slightly lacklustre, but it wasn’t on this occasion. Though the conductor has declared quite openly that he changes the way he conducts the work from one occasion to another, his basic concepts of six of the movements on this occasion were very much in the central performing tradition – except for ‘Jupiter’, in which he introduced some intriguingly unusual and not unwelcome changes of tempo. ‘Mars’ had perfect menacing strength and insistence, ‘Venus’ was ideally ethereal and remote in atmosphere, ‘Mercury’ scuttled along gleefully, and both ‘Saturn’ and ‘Uranus’ were strongly characterised. In ‘Neptune’ Wilson conjured just the right other-worldly atmosphere, with the ladies of Philharmonia Voices as excellent in their wordless offstage role as they had been in the Sinfonia Antartica.  In the Prom performance one outstanding feature had been the management of the choral fade-out that ends the work. Here it was brought to an end far too quickly. What a pity. Otherwise it was very distinguished performance. It’s a shame, as the programme note customarily pointed out, that Holst became distressed by the work’s success, since, contrary to his views, posterity has clearly confirmed it as his finest work and – unlike the Vaughan Williams symphony – it really is a masterpiece.

Alan Sanders

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