Good programming makes for a good concert. Chosen works must fit well together, providing enough musical contrast to keep things interesting, but they must not be so different as to jar listeners with alien soundworlds. All too often, organisers whip up concerts in which any link between pieces are entirely superficial and completely amusical. A perfect example of this was Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert at Bristol’s Colston Hall, conducted by the youthful Kirill Karabits. This concert coupled Holst’s most popular work, The Planets, with Mozart’s final symphony, no. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”, two works which have absolutely nothing connecting them except the suspiciously arbitrary nickname of the latter. The resulting discrepancies left me feeling as musically confused as any Martian might have been, had she/he/it been able to get a seat in a heart-warmingly packed Colston Hall.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

Good programmes are important too. Whilst the amusing error which gave Mozart a deathday of 5 December 1971 was nothing more than a forgivable typo, the fact that the programme had the Holst down to be performed first provoked my incredulity at the absurdity of such an outrageous musical decision. I was soothed by the appearance of a diminutive BSO positioned around a harpsichord (meaning Mozart), but soon irked again because the symphony’s opening was marred by the understandable whisperings of the audience, as word spread that this wasn’t, in fact, a chamber version of Mars.

So, The Administrators had conspired to get us off on the wrong foot, but things got much better. The orchestra played Mozart’s effortless, spritely melodies with beautiful lightness, and the satisfying simplicity of the imitation and regular chord progressions in the first movement was delightful. It was all fantastic fun, of a pure, Mozartean variety. A tranquil opening to the second movement led into a minor section where suspensions and pedal points provided much darker textures. The third, with its assertive rising phrases answering downward chromatic shlurps, sounded like Mozart’s take on a drinking song, and was almost as repetitive as one; although that word better applies to the finale, whose alleged magnificence supposedly accounts for the symphony’s nickname (neither invented nor endorsed by Mozart). There was little godly glory and grandeur in this performance, and so much the better: the chasing runs were all fun and games, and the winds particularly agile. But Mozart (and the orchestra) told the same jokes too many times (and with insufficient variation) and the movement became quite tedious. It was with relief that the audience applauded when finally the final chord came, and could stretch its collective legs before its journey out of this world began.

Gustav Holst is undoubtedly the most undervalued of English composers. However, listening to this performance of his most popular work, it was impossible not to be utterly spellbound by Holst’s genius as his staggering music assaulted, caressed or diffused into the ears. Karabits took Mars surprisingly fast, which boosted excitement levels, but at the cost of some of the movement’s destructive power. Tragically, Venus was utterly destroyed by a problem with the organ, which had decided to spout air and sounded like a hair-dryer blowing in the next room. Eventually, thanks to a wily techie armed with duct tape, the gushing stopped, but all too late: her magic was lost. The Winged Messenger’s remarkable scurrying followed, and although Mercury’s fiendish slipperiness proved just too elusive as the celesta struggled to stay with the strings, it was breathtaking all the same. Jupiter was fantastic in every respect: brisk, joyous, and lacking any trace of the pomposity or sentimentality a lesser performance might offer. It was a truly climactic moment, a cacophonous orgy of celebratory sound that had everyone’s hearts racing.

The immense power and understated gloaming of Saturn stems from the mesmeric repetition and intense orchestration of its funeral march, and the magician Uranus’ opening motivic blast offered us some much-needed air after the stifling atmosphere of the Bringer of Old Age. After some Disney-esque despotic wizard music, the loudest moment in the concert evaporated into nothingness, and one of the most magical, mystical movements in all music began. Neptune twinkled and shimmered like a star as the celesta and muted strings extracted us beyond the realms of the solar system and into outer space, where those angelic off-stage sopranos ceaselessly ask the eternal question. Obviously, our sopranos did cease there singing, and I felt Karabits could have squeezed a few more pianissimo repetitions from them, but still, it was a sensational end to a fantastic performance. Again though the organisers let us down; there was no clue in the programme to the identity of the owners of those disembodied voices, and no acknowledgement of their vital performance was offered either by programme compiler or conductor. Which, I felt, was a shame, and symptomatic also.