PROM 32: Holst and Lutosławski Provide an Unusual and Dazzling Evening at the Proms.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 32  Holst & Lutoslawski: Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor)Royal Albert Hall, London, 7. 8. 2013.(CG)

Lutosławski: Symphonic Variations (1936-8)
Holst:Egdon Heath Op. 47 (1927)
Lutosławski: Piano concerto (1987-8)
Holst:The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)

Whoever dreamed up this programme should be congratulated for selecting four contrasting works by two of the twentieth century’s most original composers; Holst and Lutosławski may not, at first glance, seem entirely compatible, but their music is bound by a love of orchestral colour and a desire to seek out untrodden ways. The BBC SO shone in performances which were always characterful, often powerfully impressive, and how often, other than at the Proms, do we get programmes like this?

Lutosławski’s Symphonic Variations, composed when the composer was still in his early 20’s, already shows him as an orchestral master. You can hear various influences; Szymanowski, Bartók, Ravel, Roussel, and jazz all rub shoulders but are absorbed into an idiom which is the precursor of some larger middle period works, especially the Concerto for Orchestra and Paganini Variations. The piece is absolutely brilliant, and it makes a delightful concert opener with its folksy material and vivid orchestration, and the BBC SO did this short, concise work proud.

Thomas Hardy’s England, or more specifically, Dorset, is the scene for Egdon Heath. In some respects it’s a million miles from Holst’s exotic portrayal of The Planets, which had come some ten years earlier, and yet perhaps it has a passing kinship with ‘Saturn’ or even ‘Neptune’? Or do the sombre, grey colours remind us more of the bleak world of Sibelius’s Tapiola? At any rate, Holst was cultivating a particularly spare style, with everything reduced to bare essentials. Nevertheless, this is not merely cold, unemotional music; it becomes quite agitated, before dissolving into a lament and ending on a note of quiet serenity. Nowadays it’s impossible to listen without also ruminating regretfully on a lost past – a past which Hardy was already well aware of almost a hundred years ago. Egdon Heath may be a fictitious place, but it becomes a metaphor for lost worlds. Edward Gardner drew suitably desolate tints from the orchestra, exactly what the work demands, although we might have preferred a slightly more measured approach periodically.

Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto came some fifty years after the Symphonic Variations; here is the mature composer, complete with some of the aleatoric techniques which he developed in his later works. But there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to be put off! This is one of Lutosławski’s most approachable works, perhaps because although the music is continuous, it follows a relatively traditional four-movement shape. Also, the piano writing is sometimes reminiscent of Bartók, or even Chopin, Liszt or Brahms, and we cannot help feeling affinities with other great concertos. No, of course it doesn’t sound like any of them – but there are allusions. There are plenty of tonal references too, and one way or another the music is not difficult to follow except perhaps in the third, slow, movement, which I’ve always found a little more problematic. Is it a tad too long? It felt so tonight – but in every other way the performance was thoroughly convincing, with Louis Lortie totally committed and fluent and Gardner supporting him well, if seemingly a trifle nervously sometimes. Of course the orchestra does far more than support. The textures are astounding, with Lutosławski’s love of sparkling hues frequently breathtaking. Wonderful!

It was the turn of Holst’s Planets after the interval, and I would certainly have preferred a less hurried and more menacing ‘Mars’. A fast tempo doesn’t necessarily create the most warlike and terrifying atmosphere. I didn’t feel comfortable with Gardner’s tempi in ‘Venus’ either – I’ve known time to stand still in this exquisite movement, and tonight it didn’t because the tempi simply felt too fast and unyielding. The solos were all beautifully done, and from there on things settled down and Gardner’s tendency to hurry the music along was less noticeable. There was much to enjoy in ‘Mercury’ and ‘Jupiter’, and ‘Uranus’ received as dynamic a performance as I’ve ever heard! ‘Saturn’ had just the right ominous quality, and finally ‘Neptune’ disappeared into nothingness just as it should; we were left suspended in space, the choir echoing around the hall seemingly never wishing to fade away. And we should congratulate Gardner and the audience for allowing us to revel in a particularly long silence when all was over.

The BBC Symphony obviously enjoyed playing for Gardner and all sections acquitted themselves brilliantly. The woodwind were consistently thrilling with only a few moments of strange intonation, and the horns and percussion gave their all. It’s wonderful hearing the orchestra sounding like this, and my relatively few gripes certainly did not mar a lovely evening.

Christopher Gunning

For a second opinion see Robert Beattie’s review of this concert (ed)