Everyone has their favourite movement in Holst’s Planets suite. Whether it be the percussive ferocity of “Mars, the Bringer of War”, the contrasting tranquillity of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” or the joviality of “Jupiter”, there is something in The Planets for everyone. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”, with its oppressive chiming clock signalling the passing of time, and its solemn dirge heard first in the trombones and then the woodwind, is thought to have been Holst’s personal favourite, and this performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Vladimir Ashkenazy at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall would doubtless have made the composer proud.

Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

Full of dramaticism and extreme contrasts, Ashkenazy’s shaping of the suite created all the light and shadow one might expect of modern film music. Occasionally this threatened to veer towards sheer volume, rather than dramatic effect, but each climax was effectively countered and brought back from the brink. The depth and versatility of the Philharmonia was demonstrated by their ability to effectively capture the differing character of each of the seven movements, bringing a light, mischievous quality to “Mercury” and a magical essense to “Uranus”. The highlight for me, though (although perhaps I am slightly biased as admittedly I am a “Jupiter” fan), was the rousing climax most commonly known as the hymnal setting of “I vow to thee my country”.

Ashkenazy is a meticulous, precise conductor, commanding the attention of the entire orchestra, which reacts instantly to his slightest signal. This understanding between conductor and orchestra is perhaps to be expected, but of the concerts I have seen lately, it seems in fact to be rare that so great an understanding be achieved between the two forces. Ashkenazy was named the Philharmonia’s Conductor Laureate in 2000, which perhaps accounts for the symbiosis that has been achieved thirteen years on. So overwhelming was the performance they gave, that I can forgive the Ladies of the City of Birmingham Choir’s intonational struggles towards the end of “Neptune”, although this really was an unfortunate ending to what had been an exceptional performance.

The Planets was preceded by Canadian violinst James Ehnes performing Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. This is the second time I have seen Ehnes perform at Birmingham Symphony Hall and, although impressed with his playing on the first occasion, he surpassed himself this evening. Ehnes is a passionate and earnest performer, not given to excessive flamboyance or extravagance and this clean style is perfectly suited to the repertoire. In this mentally and physically exerting piece, Ehnes appeared to give himself over entirely to the music and was able to fully exploit the emotional pull of the concerto, whilst successfully demonstrating his technical virtuosity with a stunning cadenza. A captivating performance by a musician of the highest calibre, Ehnes’ performance, like that of the Philharmonia Orchestra, cannot be praised enough.

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