The RSNO Closes Edinburgh’s International Season of Concerts with The Planets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Beethoven, J. Strauss II, R. Strauss, Adams, Williams, and Holst: Sopranos and Altos of the RSNO Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Ben Palmer (conductor), Usher Hall, 16.6.2019. (GT)

R. Strauss – Introduction from Also sprach Zarathustra
– Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 (arr. Stokowski)
Beethoven – Allegretto from Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92
J. Strauss II The Blue Danube
John Williams – Main Theme from Star Wars
John AdamsRide in a Fast Machine
HolstThe Planets Suite

This was a good opportunity to hear the RSNO in the admirable acoustic of the Usher Hall, and an opportunity to hear the hall’s organ. Another benefit was the use of projection to show The Planets – An HD Odyssey by director Duncan Copp and NASA for the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was without several of their front-desk players and musicians from Scotland’s other ensembles took their places. This was a pity as the RSNO boast some world class players in their ranks. The young English conductor Ben Palmer made a positive impression when he last appeared in Scotland in the 2017-2019 season and this was another chance to judge his talents.

In the first half, Palmer was precise and attentive to the diverse, dynamic qualities of the music, allowing the percussionist Simon Lowden his head in Adams’s Ride in a Fast Machine, with the swift changes in orchestral dynamics immaculately performed and fully backed by the orchestra. The opening, of Also Sprach Zarathustra, was marvellously enacted, though it also emphasised the weakness of the programme, one really wanted to hear more, as was the case with the slow movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Palmer brought out all the Viennese charm of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, however I thought the strings sounded off-colour and lacked the velvety shimmering quality this music requires – perhaps under-rehearsed, or just a bad day. This has been a momentous season for the RSNO under Thomas Søndergård who has brought the standards of performance to a higher level, but today they were under par, certainly in the first half. I always find Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue trivial; it might work in the cinema but here it was just awful. John Williams’s Star Wars piece really showed how much it is derived from Holst’s Planets suite, and more than a few twentieth-century composers.

Thankfully, in the second part of this concert, the standards improved, the only disappointment was the film shown on the big screen which interfered with the music because of the noise from the projector, thankfully I was far from it but still it could be heard. The film was introduced by several ‘experts’ from NASA who expressed their affinity with Holst’s music, however in my opinion, there was little in common apart from the titles given by Holst to his seven pieces describing not planets but astrological subjects. The presence of English folk music in each of the movements (almost all from the creativity of the composer) reinforced this impression – the film more or less had nothing in common with the music. Certainly, the opening ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, was impressive with shots of space capsules’ entry into the atmosphere, with the ostinato rhythm from the strings against the brass and woodwind all in 5/4 time giving an exciting, but also terrifying image of war. In the simplicity of ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’, the passage of the horn and oboe emphasised the serenity of Holst’s writing and the central section with harp, glockenspiel and celeste creating the wonderfully twinkling celestial vision. In ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’, Palmer splendidly introduced the brief switching of tonalities, an almost magical mixture of images of a rather child-like picture, with folk song shared across the orchestra displaying all the virtuosity of the orchestra’s wind group. The heart of the suite is ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, in which Holst uses an English hymn – marvellously well performed – Palmer getting full effect from this glorious church harmony ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’. In ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’, we returned to passages of serenity, with the oscillating changes between the flutes and harps producing an imagery of darkness, and the passage on the basses presented the impression of time passing us by. All impressively played, with the tubular bells again marking the ticking of a clock, and a return to solemnity and peace. The inventive and magical dance of ‘Uranus, the Magician’, showed its orchestral affinity with the French school of Dukas, with the colourful imagery on the brass and timpani exemplified by astonishingly fine playing from the wind section underlining the mastery in orchestration. This was all in contrast to ‘Neptune, the Mystic’, in the mysterious passage on the strings in 5/4 time, showing the elusiveness of the soft movement through to the final bars performed by the ladies’ chorus bringing a heavenly close to this twentieth-century English masterpiece.

Gregor Tassie

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