PROM 32 (2): Excellent Holst, Slightly Less Convincing Lutosławski

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 32: Lutosławski Holst: Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.8.2013 (RB)

Lutosławski – Symphonic Variations (1936-38)
Holst – Egdon Heath Op 47 (1927)
Lutosławski – Piano Concerto (1987-88)
Holst – The Planets Op 32 (1914-17)

This Prom opened with Lutosławski’s earliest extant orchestral work which is a highly compressed set of variations – the whole piece last less than 10 minutes. There were many good features in this performance, including clean and incisive articulation, sharp entries and immaculate control of a rich and shifting orchestral palette. The virtuoso finale was nicely worked up although I thought the fugato could have been clearer and the ending did not quite have sufficient dramatic punch.

Egdon Heath was the fictional name given to a wild stretch of countryside near Dorchester which features in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. The heath provides a dark, brooding and unsettling backdrop to the tragic novel which is about thwarted love and crushed ambition. Hardy was still alive when Holst composed this tone poem based on the novel, and the two men went walking together on Egdon Heath, but Hardy died before the first performance took place. The BBC SO’s double basses created a gorgeous dark, ripe sound at the beginning which set the scene beautifully. Gardner controlled the pulse of the music well and evoked muted colours from the brass and strings. As a piece of tone painting, one could sense the vastness and unforgiving nature of the landscape from this performance. The build up of passions was extremely well calibrated, particularly in the strings and the lament which followed was full of pathos. The shafts of light which appeared at the end of the piece were magical with Gardner and the BBC SO clearly alive to the subtle changing tone colours.

Louis Lortie joined Gardner and the BBC SO for the Lutosławski Piano Concerto. The concerto was originally written for Kristian Zimmerman and it has four distinct sections which are headed up with metronome markings but it is in one continuous movement. Lortie was using a score for the piece and had a page turner on hand – very sensible given the complexity of this music. Lortie deployed a dry, detachétouch in the first section but was not overly percussive. He and Gardner were clearly on top of the intricate rhythmic figurations but the section as a whole came across as slightly studied and academic. The second section is a scherzo and Gardner did an excellent job keeping the intricate entries co-ordinated while Lortie gave us some nimble fingerwork. Again I was not convinced that Lortie really got beneath the skin of the music and the quick fire figurations came across as a well executed study. The third section – a Largo – was much better with Lortie making the most of the dramatic recitative in the score and conjuring some rich sounds from his Fazioli. Lortie got better still in the finale and negotiated the whirling passagework well and seemed to respond better to the more overtly brilliant piano writing.

The concert concluded with The Planets suite which Holst composed over the course of the First World War. ‘Mars’ was completed just before the outbreak of war and it remains the classical musical statement depicting the horrors of mechanised warfare with its rhythmic ostinato and growling brass. Gardner adopted a brisk tempo and he handled the incremental build-up of sound in a very assured way. The timpani, harp and strings conveyed the merciless quality in the ostinato while the brass projected a real sense of impending horror and menace. ‘Venus’provides the balm after the storm and here the BBC SO gave us elegantly crafted phrases and shaded lines. I was struck in particular by the solo cello playing which I thought was very good indeed. ‘Mercury’ was again very brisk with Gardner brilliantly bringing out the light, deft and quicksilver qualities of the piece. The broad rambunctious humour and the fun of the carnival were all there in ‘Jupiter’ while the rendition of the tune later used for the hymn, I vow to Thee my Country had a stately noble sheen and was played without any trace of cliché. The musical architecture was beautifully delineated in ‘Saturn’ with the music seeming to depict something vast and timeless. Malcolm Sargent described ‘Uranus’ as an evocation of ‘the God of Bewildering Untruth’, and with its motif denoting Holst’s name and mystical associations it remains one of the most fascinating pieces in the suite. Gardner and the orchestra brought out the sardonic elements well and succeeded in unleashing the music into a wild and frenzied dance. ‘Neptune’is marked pianissimo throughout and Gardner clearly took some liberties with the dynamic marking, no doubt conscious of the need to project to the back of the Royal Albert Hall. The mystical other-worldliness of this movement came across well and the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus created some lovely sensual sounds before a magical decrescendo to finish the piece.

Overall, I thought the Holst was first rate was but was not entirely convinced by the Lutosławski.

Robert Beattie

For a second opinion see Christopher Gunning’s review of this concert (ed)