Elder and the LSO Bring a Remarkable Sense of Freshness to The Planets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Brahms and Holst: Roman Simovic (violin), Tim Hugh (cello), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 18.5.2017. (AS)

Vaughan Williams – Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’
Brahms – Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor Op.102
Holst – The Planets Op. 32

Vaughan Williams’s gentle folksong musings in his Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ are pleasant enough, but this is surely not one of the composer’s more significant shorter works, and a more substantial item from his large output might have proved to be a better choice to open this concert. The piece did, however, give the LSO strings a chance to shine on their own (with the single harp clucking contentedly in the background); and the quality of tone was certainly impressive.

In the case of the Brahms Double Concerto there is a choice for the promoters of front-line concerts: do you go to the expense of engaging two expensive international soloists, or do you use principals from the orchestra, as did Toscanini and other conductors who followed him in this practice?

It is true that although they are respectively Leader of the LSO and the orchestra’s Principal Cello, Roman Simovic and Tim Hugh play frequently with other ensembles in a solo capacity. And naturally they know each other’s playing well. The controlling hand in the performance, however, was undoubtedly Sir Mark Elder. Throughout the work he provided admirably well-sprung orchestral contributions, and his choice of tempi were unfailingly well judged. And he skilfully kept dynamics down to a low level when violin and cello had the chance to shine either as a duo or individually. Of the two, Tim Hugh gave the better impression, since he has a lovely tone quality and is an excellent technician. Roman Simovic also played well technically, but tonal lustre was not his strong point.

What the performance lacked, however, was the sense that strong solo personalities were at the helm. As a whole, mainly thanks to Elder, those listeners who were not familiar with the work will have gained an adequate impression of it, but there was a certain sense of routine, and the emotional temperature remained rather low. One waited in vain for there to be a distinctive solo turn of phrase or a bold statement to stimulate the imagination.

The LSO has an impressive history in the case of The Planets, since it gave the first complete public performance of the work under Albert Coates in 1920. Then in 1922-23 and again in 1926 the composer himself recorded two versions of the work with the LSO for the Columbia label, the first being an acoustic recording, and the second an electrically recorded replacement. In 2002 Sir Colin Davis conducted a performance that was later issued on the LSO Live label, and I am told on good authority that the LSO had not played the work again until now. So this was not an ensemble playing through a familiar work yet again, as one had thought, but one that had had to learn the piece from scratch.

Inspired by Sir Mark’s brilliant direction, the playing was not only of faultless virtuosity, but it had a remarkable sense of freshness. Anybody who expected to hear the work as over-familiar and routine must surely have had their responses quickened. At once ‘Mars’ seemed particularly menacing, with the relentless rhythm resonating to mesmerising effect. ‘Venus’ had heartbreaking passion; ‘Jupiter’ was marvellously vivacious and jaunty  – and so on throughout the work. Every planet was vividly brought to life, and the wordless female chorus faded away most effectively to bring the work to an end. Poor Holst. Thought he disliked the work’s popularity it is surely his one masterpiece, though of course he wrote other fine works.

Only one issue marred the performance. Concerns had been raised when the audience applauded after the first movement of the Brahms concerto (Elder hastened into the finale after the slow movement to prevent a recurrence). And one’s fear of a repetition of there being applause after every Planets movement, as there had been at a Proms performance two years ago, sadly materialised. It was probably unplanned that Elder preempted clapping after ‘Saturn’ and ‘Uranus’ by diving straight into the next movement. Apart from this irritation it was a feast of wonderful playing and wonderful conducting.

Alan Sanders

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