It was sonic spectacular night for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor José Serebrier at the National Concert Hall, and if Holst's The Planets remained a trifle earthbound, the concert gave the orchestra and the wonderful young French pianist Alexandre Kantorow a chance to shine. 

José Serebrier © Clive Barda
José Serebrier
© Clive Barda

Serebrier opened with Leopold Stokowski's famous – and famously over the top – arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. This is the piece that the English conductor of Polish-Irish heritage made indelible in the musical minds of generations through his filmed performance, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in Walt Disney's Fantasia of 1940. Few can match Stokowski for raw intensity, and it did not seem like Serebrier wanted to go down that path. Instead, he opted for a more laid-back approach that brought the colours of the orchestra to the fore, perhaps at the expense of some of Stokowski's drama, but an effective way to let the different sections strut their stuff. Plus, it had all the rumbling bass, pounding timpani and glowing brass anyone could have wanted.

Those rumbling double basses kept at it for the opening of the next piece, the world première of Serebrier's Symphonic B-A-C-H Variations for Piano and Orchestra. The Uruguayan told the audience the piece had an unusual structure of two fast movements followed by two slow, but it worked well for a composition that began with high drama, in a martial mode, and trailed off into the ethereal and contemplative... a bit like the Holst that followed.

The programme notes said that while composing, Serebrier avoided listening to music that uses the B-A-C-H motif, employed by scores of composers, amongst them Bach himself. But that doesn't mean there weren't hints of other composers in there, most distinctly citations in the last movement of the Dies irae in the brass the way Berlioz does in his Symphonie fantastique. Indeed, there was plenty of demonic drama in both the orchestral and the piano writing, with Kantorow having his work cut out playing masses of cluster chords and arpeggios up and down the keyboard. The young Frenchman, a specialist in Liszt, made it look effortless and a shower of arpeggios in the finale was wonderfully soothing after the tempestuousness of the first two movements.

If Serebrier's variations were played with gusto and finesse, the Holst was less inspiring. The NSO's performance coincided with the centenary of the première in London in 1918 of what would become Holst's most famous work. The shy and retiring socialist could hardly have imagined that his piece would be channelled into a soundtrack for the space age, creating an overlay of expectation for The Planets that is almost impossible to fulfil. With Serebrier taking a more relaxed approach, the performance lacked some of the thrills and chills this piece can provide. That said, Jupiter, with its "Thaxted" theme that Holst later turned into "I Vow to Thee My Country", was beautifully played. Perhaps this was a performance Holst would have appreciated, 100 years later.

***11