Gustav Holst certainly wouldn’t be classed by anyone in the “one-hit wonder” brigade, but it is quite rare to find his name appearing on concert programmes next to anything but those two words: The Planets. Unlike Holst himself, I would not question the frequent performances that his most popular work receives; it is a sensational piece of music, fully deserving of all its orchestral and audience attention. However, it is wonderful when that crowd-pulling piece is coupled in performance with one of the exquisite works that Holst himself regarded most highly. This was the case for Prom 32, in which Edward Gardner conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Egdon Heath and The Planets, coupled with two works of a vastly different character by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski: the Piano Concerto and the Symphonic Variations.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra in Prom 9 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
The BBC Symphony Orchestra in Prom 9
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The short, youthful Symphonic Variations opened the concert, and it proved quite a curtain raiser. Its intensity is vibrant: opening with an innocent flute melody, the music undergoes a sinister harmonic twist, with eerie, dissonant chords underlying an oboe solo. After a skittish, scratchy allegro variation, full of unpredictable, insuppressible energy, the music disperses into a slower, cloudier section featuring a brief but delicious violin solo from leader Simon Blendis. A steadier, momentum-gathering variation becomes scatty again, even bordering on manic, but a soaring horn melody (prefiguring those of “Jupiter” remarkably, I thought) heralded the work’s swift conclusion. The orchestra’s lively sound and energy excelled in this opening number, which was, quite simply, great fun.

This frolicsome beginning proved an excellent foil for Holst’s austere representation of Thomas Hardy’s desolate landscape in Egdon Heath. Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native begins with a description of the Heath, the harsh, indifferent backdrop against which the tale is set. Holst gives the opening melody to the double basses, immediately creating an eerie, foreboding soundscape which is only increased by the intangible shifting harmonies that enter in the winds. The twisting melodic passages wind their way slowly up through the strings, before a brass chorale leads into a scurrying, quicker section in which the looming music takes a fierce turn. Another brass chorale disintegrates this fierceness, the instruments’ timbre imparting a first hint of warmth into the otherwise chilly music. Again, shifting chords in the strings invoke an alien, intangible atmosphere. The orchestra created an extraordinary veiled, misty sound totally befitting Holst’s bleak vision: one which showed how completely Gardner and his players had understood the magic of Egdon Heath. And with an ephemeral floating violin passage, this vision drifted away in a wisp of mist...

Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto is exactly like a secondary-school science experiment: that one where you drop a piece of reactive metal into a basin of water. It fizzes around excitedly, skimming randomly in this and that direction, before vanishing completely, leaving a shimmering surface and a lot of excited onlookers marvelling at what they just witnessed. Louis Lortie was the soloist in this remarkable concerto, in which the piano is as much within the orchestral texture as standing out in front. Lortie did shine, though: sparkling in the rapid passages in the instrument’s higher register that are a feature of the piano writing, and interacting seamlessly with the often complex orchestral texture. Gardner disposed of his baton, directing subtle changes of volume in the winds’ amazing birdsong-like burbling which open the work with a mere curling of the fingers. There was not always such intimacy, though: sections of immense climactic sound shatter the scurrying energetic textures, which subside into vast vacuums as the orchestration positively resounded in its emptiness. The players were exceptional, the double basses again featuring, as well as virtuosic solos from the tom-tom player and lead cellist: an excellent performance of a quite extraordinary piece of music.

Finally came The Planets. And what a performance it was! “Mars” was suitably imperious; “Venus”, shimmering and beautiful; “Jupiter”, refreshingly less stodgily stately and more joyous than often portrayed; “Uranus”, transformed from Disneyesque villain into powerful sorcerer with a healthy streak of ironic humour; and “Neptune”, as celestial, mystical and transcendent as ever, the disembodied women’s voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus floating us off into the ether. But most impressive for me were “Mercury” and “Saturn”: the former was fantastically fleet-footed, Holst creating a dizzying aerial feeling with rapidly descending and ascending scalic passages; the latter, melancholy and foreboding, the simple, inexorable clock-like repetition of flutes, timpani, harps and tubular bells generating a dimensional vastness that was almost terrifying in its incomprehensibility.

It is in “Saturn” that we find The Planets’s most obvious link to the musical expression found in the composer’s more favoured orchestral works. These, as the BBC SO’s Egdon Heath proved, are deserving of more exposure: but, as they proved, too, The Planets fully deserves its immense popularity.

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