It would be hard to imagine more compatible bedfellows. Comparable forces, similar durations and the work of two close friends, if fashion had not decreed otherwise The Planets and Sinfonia antartica could be the Cav and Pag of British music. As it is, Holst’s ride through the galaxy is deservedly ubiquitous while the Seventh Symphony of Vaughan Williams languishes in snowbound neglect.

John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Stucturally, let’s concede, it is not a truly symphonic symphony, but neither are Britten’s Spring or Strauss’ Alpine and they still get aired. Is it because Sinfonia antartica draws on previously composed film music that it is such a rarity except within complete RVW cycles? I've a hunch it would have enjoyed more success if he’d plumped for a name like Symphonic Evocations because that, in essence, is what the work’s five movements amount to. Some, notably the outer movements, are vividly visual landscapes; the Intermezzo on the other hand, with its extended passage for solo oboe (ravishingly played in this Philharmonia performance by Gordon Hunt), is abstract and purely atmospheric.

John Wilson proved to be a sterling advocate for the Sinfonia antartica, monumental in his depictions of indomitable ice mountains and a salutary reminder that Vaughan Williams composed this before global warming took hold; loose-limbed when gingering up the more foursquare moments of the second-placed Scherzo.

The Philharmonia Orchestra responded to his super-prepared direction with verve and virtuosity. After a panoply of tonal contrasts in an opening movement that saw Sarah Tynan and the Philharmonia Voices send wordless magic from beyond the dressing room doors and a wind machine alternate with a fury of tuned percussion, purple passages became more spread out and allowed for space between stand-out moments. Luke Whitehead’s mellow contrabassoon and Heidi Krutzen’s expressive harp playing were beacons along the way to the work’s widescreen finale.

While Wilson could not convince me that the central movement, Landscape, isn’t weak fare, its circular phrases saved from dullness only by a fifth-cavalry onslaught of triple-forte organ and brass, his advocacy of the Sinfonia antartica as a whole was a moving experience. The Geordie maestro’s ability to create layers of proximity and distance within the sound picture attested to his artistry and taste.

Coming barely four months after his performance at the 2017 BBC Proms, on that occasion with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Wilson’s account of The Planets was surprisingly patchy. Mars was thrilling and the Philharmonia played it with open-throated relish but there were issues of balance as the brass overwhelmed the violins. Venus and Mercury were disappointments, the former blest with a ravishing violin solo from leader Laura Samuel but oddly business-like in other respects and devoid of wonder or ethereality; the latter a mite plodding, as though someone had clipped the messenger’s ankle wings.

When jolly Jupiter barrelled in, everything fell into place. Wilson coloured the music delightfully: he braked subtly into tenuto moments then released them like catapults, and he refused to be drawn into English hymnality when the big tune appeared. Saturn was graced by sublime work from the Phalharmonia’s flute section and built to a climax worthy of the Great Gate of Kiev before subsiding into the kind of shimmer that Venus had lacked; Wilson’s familiar swagger turned Uranus into a cousin of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, while Neptune had an ideal mysticism. A perilous interplanetary journey, then, but a safe landing.