Holst’s The Planets: BBCSO at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices), Professor Brian Cox, Ben Gernon

Barbican Hall, 29th September 2018

I wasn’t quite sure of what the format would be for this performance of Holst’s The Planets. Maybe a quick intro from our most famous and telegenic physicist, then a work-out for the BBCSO under Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, with a few unspecified other repertoire to be tacked on. What I hadn’t bargained for was a full-on lecture preceding each of the seven movements with state-of-the-art slide-show accompaniment showcasing some of the most famous images of our solar system.

It was therefore a very pleasant surprise. The Hall was packed to the rafters and, this being The Planets with a famous bloke off the telly, there was a far more diverse audience than you normally see at the Barbican or the South Bank. And my, my, did I learn a lot. Although I confess I can’t remember it all. The point is that Prof Cox, with his dulcet Manc tones, his child-like enthusiasm and his preposterous hair-cut is just the man to show us how the latest scientific understanding of our solar system, drawn from all that hard- and soft- ware sent out over the last four decades to examine it, both connects to, and contradicts, the more mystical and conjectural view prevalent in the early C20 when Holst wrote his masterpiece.

Holst, with his attachment to English folk-song and Eastern mysticism, was a curious fellow in some ways. Swedish extraction, frail constitution, mates with Vaughan-Williams, teacher at St Pauls Girls School, as fancy as it gets even then, nice gaff looking over the Thames in Barnes, committed socialist. An interest in theosophy, a right rag-tag of funny ideas as far as I can tell, but which had quite a hold over the Western creative community in the inter-war period.

His music is pretty curious as well. Uncertain tonalities, modal expressions, the kind of counterpoint more typical of medieval forms, irregular and often belting rhythms, ear-catching dissonance. It all tumbled out in The Planets, which itself it as big a subject as you can imagine for programmatic music. No surprise that it was such a success when finally completed in 1917, bolstering his career and reputation, and no surprise it is so popular today. Its best ideas might now appear to be a field full of hackneyed war-horses but, if you step back from the familiar, it still has the power to wow especially, I think, in the slower passages. At the time it was as “modern” as Debussy or Stravinsky, and, like them, its influence on “everyday” classical music now, is inescapable. No Planets, no fantasy film scores.

Holts’s starting point was the elemental character of each of the seven planets which is what lies behind astrology, (connected to this theosophy caper apparently). All b*llocks obviously, even at the time, but Holst believed it. And believing in the power of the planets to influence us did give a starting point for Holst to set out what he saw as important facets of the human condition: War (Mars), Peace (Venus), Messenger (Mercury), Jollity (Jupiter), Old Age (Saturn), Magician (Uranus), Mystic (Neptune), Scoff all you like but this nonsense also meant that, on this night, the exact centenary, Prof Cox could then riff on how far we have come in our understanding of what makes up our solar system, and that more existential question, what other life might be, or have been, out there.

The BBCSO, (with the female voices of the choir for the final wordless chorus in Neptune) was on top form and threw itself into the hyped-up interpretation under Ben Gerson. With the movements broken up by Prof Cox’s oration it was important to establish momentum in each of the movements tout suite as it were. After all the whole piece clocks in at just under an hour with only Saturn and Venus getting anywhere near the 10 minute mark. Easy enough to quickly stake your claim on the thunderous toccata of Mars, (here claimed as a wider critique of industrial capitalism and not just the horror of mechanised warfare), the carnival scherzo of Jupiter, the bitonal dance of Mercury or the sardonic fantasy of Uranus. I have to say though that the BBCSO was actually most convincing in the nagging processional of Saturn and the endless hush of Neptune which take more time to overawe.

All up a splendid idea. Of course individually the images, the music and the lecture might have had more lasting impact, but put them all together and a deeper impression was created. It would be nice if we humans could keep our sh*t together long enough to find out if we are not alone.

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