The London Philharmonic Orchestra brought their HD Odyssey to a packed Bridgewater Hall, giving an audiovisual feast of John Adams, Richard Strauss and Gustav Holst alongside impressive footage of the Earth and space.

Jupiter and Io © JPL & NASA
Jupiter and Io
© JPL & NASA

The format was quite straightforward, with films playing on a large screen above the stage whilst the orchestra worked their way through the rich sound palettes of the programme. At first look this worked quite well, with a few thrilling moments in which sound and vision combined magnificently, but often I found myself wanting more. Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra was a case in point. The film here was largely of our own planet, mostly spectacular images of the natural world with a few shots of the International Space Station thrown in. This was all very well, but beyond an obligatory sunrise scene at the beginning, the pictures rarely seemed to engage with the music or the philosophy it represents. The space shuttle occasionally popped up at the appearance of B major (representative of man, as opposed to the C major of nature), which worked well in “Of Science”, but little else was discernible. If there was deeper meaning, it was hard to spot.

Perhaps, though, a visual translation of Nietzsche’s work was rather a lot to ask. The music was certainly well played, and the photography was astonishing. One of the best moments was a thrilling end to “The Convalescent” (prompting an outburst of applause), accompanied by images of furiously swirling clouds over Antarctica. The brilliance of the string sound made the hymn of the “Backworldsmen” very convincingly religious. They were well led by Pieter Schoeman, whose “Dance Song&rduqo; solo was excellent, despite some idiosyncratic tempo manipulations by Renes.

The woodwind produced the finest playing all evening, especially so in the flighty dotted rhythms in “Of Science”, and the LPO brass played with all the power one would expect, with the principal trumpet’s notorious leaps pulled off with consummate ease. The closing bars were also very good, with the woodwind chords and dissonant pizzicato seeming to hang in the air as the Earth floated into the distance on-screen. It was a very enjoyable performance, but it only occasionally reached the heights of intense drama of which it is capable.

Unusually for a work of such epic proportions as Zarathustra, it felt somewhat overshadowed by the other chief work on the programme, Holst’s The Planets, which the orchestra seemed to attack with rather more vigour than they did the Strauss. A short introduction to Duncan Copp’s 2006 film The Planets: An HD Odyssey espoused the values of science and the quest for discovery before an account of “Mars” as militant as could be hoped for. Driving this, both timpanists were on superb form. Later, their soloistic playing in “Uranus” helped make the penultimate planet the most thrilling of the seven, backed by further excellent woodwind playing. The celeste twinkled beautifully in the later movements and received the loudest applause at the end. The offstage ladies of Huddersfield Choral Society were wonderfully mystic for “Neptune”, and whoever was tasked with the slow closing of the door from their backstage room created a very good effect.

The film here was again very impressive, despite the obvious problems arising from the differences between the astrological inspirations of Holst’s music and the astronomical images on screen. This can usually be overcome – Mars can be made to look like a battlefield, Uranus magical and Jupiter both jolly and grand – but the dichotomy in Venus was difficult to accept, as “The Bringer of Peace” was accompanied by images of one of the hottest and most toxic atmosphere in the solar system.

John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine opened the concert with contagious excitement. Renes, a keen advocate of Adams’ music, did a fine job of driving the piece whilst retaining tight control. It made for a superb soundtrack to the accompanying film of rocket take-off. It was an excellent start to a very enjoyable performance. The huge audience was significantly younger than many other Bridgewater Hall concerts, and they seemed to love every minute.