Close on forty years separate Holst’s Planets from Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica and yet the cross-references between them make intriguing listening when placed side by side – as here in these stirring if uneven performances from the Philharmonia Orchestra and John Wilson.
Using material derived, though not exclusively, from Vaughan Williams’s score for the 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic, Sinfonia Antartica is no easy work to pull off, and Wilson mostly succeeded. There was plenty of drama and momentum for the ‘Prelude’, more Andante than maestoso, the purposeful main theme given vigorous endeavour, though with little hint of endurance. Climactic timpani and brass provided plenty of heft but the “antarctic shimmerings” (VW) from xylophone and piano were so loud as to be more comical than chilling. More effective were the wordless murmurings of Sarah Tynan and the Philharmonia Voices, placed out of sight behind the brass; unsettling yet austerely beautiful. Wilson strove to make something of the ‘Scherzo’ but atmosphere was in short supply until the calmer closing section that brought comfort to the relentless penguin motif. The unforgiving and hostile icy wastes of ‘Landscape’ – satisfyingly conjured by flutes, muted horns and timpani – were relieved by thunderous tam-tam and organ, with insistent trumpets, while a doleful oboe and harp in the ‘Intermezzo’ brought nobility to the tragedy of Captain Scott’s expedition. The ‘Epilogue’, reprising the work’s opening idea, provided plenty of colour and vitality yet its glacial close (drawing a respectful silence) left me unmoved.
If at times the Philharmonia had sounded dutiful, the musicians raised their game for The Planets. Wilson was no more animated and his gestures no less robotic, but there was now a lustre and thrill to the tone. ‘Mars’ (with nicely prominent tenor tuba) was possessed with fire-in-the-belly spirit and climaxes were shattering. Audience coughing marred an otherwise impressive ‘Venus’ (exquisite string-playing), although tempo variations could have been more smoothly integrated. Any rough edges in the cross-rhythms of ‘Mercury’ were soon forgotten during a slick, steady and impish account; not so for a bucolic ‘Jupiter’, begun with a lurch in the speed within the first few bars, and I’ve heard more expansive readings of the hymn-tune, with a leaning to solemnity, so it was refreshing to have Wilson’s unsentimental view. Holst’s reliance on ostinato patterns comes to the fore in ‘Saturn’, its central clamorous railing against old age (with deafening tubular bells) yielded to a heavenly vision and quiet dignity and rapture, and the wizardry of ‘Uranus’ was much enjoyed by the players, and (for me) conjured the stink-lab at St Trinian’s. And so to ‘Neptune’, here ethereal, the ladies’ celestial tones and remoteness expressing not just the unfathomable but also confirming Sinfonia Antartica as an ideal companion piece.