A packed hall, including several primary schools and a handful of mayors, attended for a 20th-century triptych. One suspected that most were there for Holst’s The Planets, but it was the first half’s Stravinsky and Shostakovich which were most revelatory tonight.

Sir Mark Elder © Sheila Rock
Sir Mark Elder
© Sheila Rock

There was nothing wrong with Elder’s account of The Planets, but in its avoidance of extremes it probably wasn’t quite how many would have expected it. Mars was less brutal than it was expansive, giving the impression of a vast, heavy force rather than an aggressive and dynamic assault; there wasn’t quite the bite from the lower brass for that, but it was interesting rather than disappointing. It seemed less isolated from the rest of the suite this way, and as with the whole work great attention was paid to subtle details of articulation and balance. This was especially noticeable in the intricate delicacies of Mercury, Jupiter and Uranus. Here string articulation was crisp, making for an appreciably flighty messenger in Mercury and clear, jolly attack in the rhythmic complexities of Jupiter. The famous noble theme in the latter was far from over-laboured, making Jupiter more jovial than grandiose. The mischief of Uranus was vigorously ebullient, highly suggestive of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice (though Michael Kennedy’s programme note states that Holst had not heard this work before writing The Planets) and the two timpanists were excellent in their almost melodic duet.

By contrast, Venus, Saturn and Neptune were fascinating variations in stillness. Venus was warm and full of soloistic rubato, Saturn was almost sedative in the basses and harps and Neptune exuded watery weightlessness. In all three, richly-coloured string playing underpinned the unusual effects of celeste and organ. Particularly in Saturn, the rumble of a pedal C four octaves below middle C, so quiet as to be as palpable as much as audible, was a wonderful effect. Another of these was the execution of Holst’s instruction that in Neptune “The Chorus is to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which... is to be slowly and silently closed”. The ladies’ chorus were in fine voice behind the stage, convincingly submarine and disappearing very slowly to a magical silence.

This was not the most violent Mars or heroic Jupiter, but their moderation allowed more attention to be paid to the dancing energy and heavy tranquillity of the suite’s other movements. The same energy was common to the music of the first half. A very strong case was made for Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice, an early work from the composer’s mid-twenties, now perhaps unfairly underperformed. It received a sparkling outing, the highlight of which was the interaction between superb solo trumpet and horns, as descriptive of fireworks as Holst was of planets and mythology.

Despite the relatively recent death of Stalin, Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto no. 1 in 1959 against a backdrop of personal strife and the early murmurings of motor neurone disease. The work seems to acknowledge these, sardonic and lamenting in turn, and making enormous demands on the soloist. In this role American Alisa Weilerstein’s playing was technically and musically superb. In ensemble she was also excellent, humble enough to shrink into gravelly accompaniment occasionally and interacting closely with Principal Horn Laurence Rogers, who gave some very good solos.

The first movement was relentless in its driving semiquavers, both orchestra and soloist showing good stamina to charge to a breathless finish. In the slow movement Weilerstein created an elegantly sly sound, slightly clipped in intensity and deeply uneasy. Her pianissimo line above the string section was brilliantly controlled, and she produced some flawless high harmonics The cadenza, uncommonly long at around seven minutes, was slowly brewed and well shaped, taking great relish in concurrent pizzicato and bowing before ascending to a frenetic transition into the third movement. Excess emotion was then shut away behind ferocious energy, even at quiet dynamics, and the music gathered momentum towards a flourishing close.

They might have expected to enjoy the Holst the most, but the primary schools in the choir burst into enthusiastic applause after the first movement of Shostakovich with eagerness which seemed entirely genuine, rather than simply not being aware of clapping conventions.

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