A concert programme that includes both Holst and Vaughan Williams is as right as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. As great friends who supported and guided each other in their work for over forty years, the similarities and differences in their output is fascinating. Hearing Holst’s glittering The Planets alongside a relatively minor work by Vaughan Williams, the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, showed us the supreme technical brilliance of the former shining through every bar, and the more understated, but emotionally satisfying oeuvre of the latter.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

For Holst The Planets was the work that put his name on the international map of composers and remains one of the most popular orchestral works of the twentieth century, but it also became a benchmark that all his subsequent works were measured against. Generally the public and critics were disappointed with most of his works after the First World War. Contrastingly Vaughan Williams, whose early popular success with the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending also created expectations, used this success as a platform to build a rich and varied style, resulting in him become the leading British composer of his generation.

The Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus from 1939 kicked off the evening in the full golden glow of the LSO strings. A twelve-minute work, written at a time when the composer was newly in love with his second wife to be, Ursula, it has a concentrated sweetness that flowered also in the Serenade to Music and the Fifth Symphony of the same period. Sir Mark Elder found the perfect path through the layers of the variants, creating a rounded sense of fulfilment and of an experience that was more than the sum of its parts, as is the way so often with V.W.

The performance of the Brahms Double Concerto that followed was a more routine affair. The last of the composer’s four concertos and his final orchestral work, it has a passionate mellowness which is quite elusive. The problem with this performance was that the intense moments in the score were not acknowledged sufficiently, creating a homogenised effect particularly in the first movement. This might have partly been the result of the soloists, Roman Simonvić and Tim Hugh, being the orchestral leader and principal cello of the orchestra in their day jobs and not always presenting themselves as soloists. There’s a case to be made for the chamber-like qualities of the piece, but it’s also important to remember that violin part was written for Joseph Joachim. Elder’s choice of tempi was not always ideal, sometimes heavy-footed in the first movement, too fast in the “Andante” and not fast enough in the finale. However, it wasn’t a bad performance despite the tempo choices and the soloists were admirably in tune with each other, though in the end it just didn’t catch fire.

The same could not be said about the performance of The Planets that rounded off the evening. From the opening 5/4 thumping march of “Mars” it was evident that Elder was not planning on a subtle, symphonic interpretation of the score. He clearly sees the work as a technicolour orchestral tour de force, full of atmosphere and brilliant approachable thematic material, which in a way sums up much of the best of the orchestral writing of the pre-war years. Echoes of Stravinsky, Debussy and Richard Strauss abound, as well as a clear link to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony in “Jupiter” , first performed shortly before Holst started work on the piece.

Every planet was beautifully characterised. Notably, “Mars has never sounded so battle-hardened, “Jupiter was splendidly positive with depth in the brass sound, “Saturn reached a suitably doom-laden, resonant climax and the distant glimmer of “Neptune was allowed to flow into nothingness without over-emphasising the hushed dynamics until the last breath of the off-stage chorus. A landmark performance by Elder and LSO of a work that never fails to please, but which was presented here with a particular inspiration and freshness.