Humankind’s fascination with the universe stretches back to the dawn of civilisation, and a century of unprecedented technological advancement has not taken away from the romantic wonder of space. With interplanetary travel again the hot topic of global discussion, it’s easy to see why Holst’s The Planets maintains its status as the reliable trump card of classical concert seasons, and its presentation by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with conductor Benjamin Northey in the spacious and sold-out Melbourne Town Hall hit just the right festive tone on a miserable, rain-soaked Friday evening.

Benjamin Northey © Matt Irwin
Benjamin Northey
© Matt Irwin

I must admit to a question that bothered me concerning the remainder of the program: why Chopin? The choice of Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps overture to open the evening suggested the potential for either an all-British, all-20th-century, or all-programmatic concert, any of which would have been fascinating listening. Separating The Wasps and The Planets with Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor does provide the relief of contrast, but the sacrifice of conceptual unity stuck out as a lost opportunity, particularly when many of the other programming and logistical decisions were brave and refreshing, such as the undeniably charming mini-interview between conductor Benjamin Northey and principal timpanist Christine Turpin that mitigated the dreary wait of stage re-positioning, and the choice of Stravinsky’s early Fireworks Op.4 as encore, over the more typical Pomp and Circumstance march by Elgar.

The Wasps got the evening off to a playful start. Composed in 1909 as the first movement of a suite of incidental music, the overture makes clear reference to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, adopting the same trilling technique in the opening minutes to evoke flying insects. Under Northey’s baton, the orchestra was assured in its interpretation, giving ample yet subtle highlight to the varied features of this effective crowd-warmer.

Based in New York, Australian pianist Andrea Lam’s accomplishments to date – including multiple concerto appearances internationally and guest performances in numerous important chamber music festivals – are impressive and authoritative. From the very opening notes of the concerto, Lam illuminated the immense beauty that is the Chopin melody, with a clear and convincing execution of decorative ornamentation and dynamic shading. Tempi were on the relaxed side, testifying to the pianist’s admirable self-confidence and maturity. Perhaps it would have helped to balance more evenly the giving of time with the robbing (as the performing technique of rubato is understood), or at least to maintain momentum in the more stirring episodes, an ability which she certainly possessed and demonstrated afterwards in her encore performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor. The orchestra, often lagging behind at cadence points, did not help in this respect.

Like Pachelbel, Holst is the cruel victim of one-hit fame: he is adored and recognised ubiquitously by popular audiences, and joked about by connoisseurs and practising musicians, on the basis of a single composition out of a vast output. Just over a hundred years after the composition of The Planets, it’s difficult today to write off Holst’s direct and immediately engaging style of musical communication, a quality earlier anticipated in Vaughan William’s buzzy opening to The Wasps. For me the great achievement of The Planets is the rejection of humanist, positivist symphonic narrative in service to the truly out-of-this-world subject at hand, and thank goodness that the once-adopted practice of performing only Mars, Venus, Mercury and Jupiter as a Planets ‘Symphony’ is the exception rather than the norm.

Apparently eager to avoid sentimentality, Northey guided the orchestra through the suite with careful and sparing affectation. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, was quite jolly, and the conductor visibly enjoyed himself, but the famous chorale tune was given a matter-of-fact recitation, though with a much appreciated sense of flow. The offstage choir gave dedicated, if occasionally pitchy, voice to the mysterious sirens in “Neptune” (is the singing human, alien, cosmic, or imagined?), but it was a shame to have heard the conclusion of the final repeating chords – more repetitions and a more gradual decrease in volume would have strengthened the magic of the moment and perhaps allowed the ultimate silence to last for longer, which The Planets so greatly deserves. All in all, a masterly and consistent performance of a grand work. Particular commendation must be given to the all-important brass section that gave this performance of Holst’s visionary soundscape gravitas as well as incredible delicacy.