As a fan of the Second Viennese School, I was happy to see Schoenberg programmed in a Proms Plus Family concert. I had concerns that placing well-loved The Planets in the first half would be detrimental to both Schoenberg and Scriabin, but I needn’t have worried; the Royal Albert Hall remained brimming with people for the second half.

Vladimir Jurowski © Sheila Rock
Vladimir Jurowski
© Sheila Rock

It felt odd having such a large work as the starting piece in a concert, and perhaps this was reflected in the restrained opening of “Mars”. Often it felt as if Jurowski was afraid to let the orchestra off the leash, particularly the brass. There were issues with the balance as well; when the brass was at its fullest, high strings were lost in the melee. When it came to life though, it was with fantastic menace. “Venus” was much more assured, with a gorgeous horn solo; indeed, all solo efforts were fantastic. There was a lightness of touch from Jurowski’s fine control, and this was one of the highlights of the first half. Jurowski’s deftness carried through into “Mercury”; although at times it felt a bit seat-of-the-pants, the orchestra’s momentum carried it through.

The strong opening of “Jupiter” was marred very slightly as the brass struggled to get to grips with the pace. In fairness to them, it was once more on the fast side, leading to a certain breathlessness. It did threaten to get away from Jurowski at times, so forcefully did he drive the music on (while maintaining the calmest poise on the podium). This gave a somewhat relentless feeling to the movement, although it finished in great style. The faster tempo was more effective in the atmospheric “Saturn”. The syncopations with the bells were much more pronounced, giving a pleasing tension. The brass were redeemed in “Uranus”, which was strong and energetic, and fun, far more fun than I had remembered it being. This was contrasted with a lovely sense of shade in the slower sections, making this another highlight of the first half.

“Neptune” began with great darkness in the woodwind, although the sound of the harps was somewhat lost. The music grew into a glittering soundscape, delicately handled by Jurowski. I had huge admiration for the sopranos of the London Philharmonic Choir, whose high, quiet entry was perfect, including a gorgeous crescendo towards the end of their first long, held note. Perhaps they didn’t realise how much of their sound came across, as they were a little loud after this, and the orchestra had moderated their sound to account for the offstage chorus. However, this sound was lovely (with only very slight tuning issues in the sopranos towards the end), and they faded out to end the piece gorgeously.

Holst attended the première of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, and obtained a copy of the score. Its influence on The Planets was clear from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance, which highlighted elements of Schoenberg’s work that made their way into Holst’s. This was in addition to a sweeping, Mahlerian feel to the work overall, as well as references to Schoenberg’s own Verklärte Nacht. The first piece began in stuttering fashion, before heading into tautly controlled, energetic territory (with some lovely rattling in the lower registers). The second piece was less comfortable, although loaded with the aforementioned echoes. There was a real sense of music hanging in the air in the third piece, while the fourth was hugely dramatic, interspersed with moments of calm before a great climactic finish. The fifth had a real sense of tearing between the past and future; a real turning point in musical history brought to life.

Scriabin had very strong ideas about the interrelationship of the arts, and the scoring for Prometheus: The Poem of Fire includes a part for “colour organ”. To this end the Proms had employed a lighting designer, Lucy Carter, to create a colourscape to match the creationist soundscape of Scriabin. While this added some nice touches in places (visions of atomic/galatic collisions and background radiation), overall it was more distracting than enlightening. However, soloist Toradze’s performance was masterful; making Scriabin sound easy is no mean feat! The orchestra’s performance was rich and full, although it sagged in the middle (perhaps here a speedier tempo would’ve been beneficial) before rising to a sudden climax with the complete forces of choir and orchestra. There was a real sense of connection between all three works, as Jurowski brought out a Mahlerian feel to the Scriabin as well. All it needed was a little less light, and a little more fire.

***11