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

10/11/2017

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

Print Friendly

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018 Blossom Music Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! LA Opera’s 2018/19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Buxton Festival 2018 and its New CEO __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! Violinist Liza Ferschtman Celebrates Bernstein’s Centenary in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Piccadilly Chamber Music Series in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera and More in Buenos Aires in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Gloucester Choral Society’s Hubert Parry’s Centenary Celebrations in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Spend a Penny for Grange Park Opera’s Lavatorium Rotundum __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Forthcoming Schubert Song Series in Leeds and Sheffield __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! I Musicanti’s Alexandra and the Russians at St Johns Smith Square in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov’s Return to London in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ANDREA CARÈ AS HE RETURNS TO COVENT GARDEN AS DON JOSÉ __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group to Perform Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Cadogan Hall __________________________________
  • NEW! A Celebration of the Work of Dai Fujikura at Wigmore Hall on 17 February __________________________________
  • NEW! Rafael de Acha Introduces Some of Cincinnati’s New Musical Entrepreneurs __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB’s 2018 Emerging Dancer will be Chosen at the London Coliseum on 11 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Akram Khan’s Giselle for ENB Can be Seen in Cinemas from 25 April __________________________________
  • NEW! BARRY DOUGLAS IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • UPDATED! SOME OF OUR REVIEWERS CHOOSE THEIR ‘BEST OF 2017’ __________________________________
  • NEW! OMER MEIR WELLBER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • NEW! GREGOR TASSIE IN CONVERSATION WITH VALENTINA LISITSA __________________________________
  • NEW! Dénes Várjon Talks to Sebastian Smallshaw About Budapest’s Kamara.hu __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM – DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY (1962-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! Ann Murray’s Masterclass at the V&A Part of Opera: Passion, Power and Politics __________________________________
  • NEW! A Composer Speaks Up for the Environment: An Interview with Margaret Brouwer __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H