Richard Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration was written in 1888-89, when he was 24. He observed on his own deathbed in 1949 that “dying is just as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration”. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth began the oppressive sickroom music with precision, the stuttering second violins and violas evoking the laboured breathing of the protagonist. The death struggle of the Allegro and the moment of passing are graphically depicted by the composer and were performed as if the musicians’ own lives depended on it, in playing which if not always immaculate was fiercely passionate. Wigglesworth’s view of the piece was very persuasive, for the transfiguration music was noble, and the quiet coda serene.

Ryan Wigglesworth
© Chris Christodoulou

There was more death and transfiguration in Matthew Kaner’s Pearl. This BBC commission here received its world premiere, postponed by the pandemic from 2020. It is a setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra of Simon Armitage’s modern English version of the medieval poem. A jeweller mourns the child he called Pearl and revisits the place where she died. He falls asleep and dreams of her in the afterlife. She appears to him and, at first maddened that he cannot join her across the dividing waters, he concedes “at first I pined for my fallen pearl, then gave her up to go to her God”.

Kaner’s setting is essentially an extended arioso lamentation by the jeweller, expertly sung by Roderick Williams, with some telling contributions by the chorus. The female choristers "speak" as Pearl in the afterlife, a beautiful moment. The score often shimmered, high strings and tuned percussion representing both the jewels Pearl wears and her iridescent white gown, as well as the dazzling vision of paradise. Kaner’s orchestral imagination and poetic word-setting made his 30-minute piece a fascinating response to this transcendental text.

Roderick Williams
© Chris Christodoulou

The appearance of the seven heavenly bodies of Holst’s The Planets meant a full house and a queue for returns, rewarded by a fine performance. Or rather a set of performances, as this is a seven-movement suite with quite different movements, based on the astrological character of the seven planets of the solar system. Mars was relentless in its martial five-beat rhythm, quite swift, the final ffff chords a set of mighty blows. In its temperamental opposite Venus, we heard the most exquisite playing of the night, from the horn’s perfect opening solo, through the answering flutes and oboes, to the solo violin and then the full section, on to the closing gleam of the celesta.

The three scherzo-like movements were well differentiated by Wigglesworth in their type of movement. Mercury was a very fleet-footed "winged messenger", while the jollity of Jupiter was more rumbustious, as if overexcited at the imminent arrival of the famous tune at the centre of the suite. In Uranus, this magician seems a (nearly) grownup version of a certain sorcerer’s apprentice, as Holst’s galumphing bassoons recall Dukas. 

The dedicated quietude of the performance in the fifth and seventh movements was enchanting. Saturn saw old age creeping up in one of Holst’s characteristic processions, treading bleakly to its climax with noisily clangorous bells. Neptune, marked pianissimo throughout, hugely benefited in mystical effect from being heard in the Royal Albert Hall, where the 55 women of the chorus were ideally distanced, right up in the gallery, whence their otherworldly sounds could fade away into the transcendence that closed the previous works in the programme. Managing such precise tuning and a magical final decrescendo was the final, but not the least, musical achievement of the night.