“Inspired by the mythological character of each planet, Holst created what has become one of the 20th century’s best-loved and most iconic works for orchestra. On the centenary of its premiere, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ben Gernon join forces with Professor Brian Cox to take a fresh musical and visual look at The Planets and cast new light on Holst’s vividly atmospheric masterpiece.” [Barbican Centre website]
The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32
Brian Cox (presenter)
BBC Symphony Chorus (female voices)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Landau
Reviewed: 29 September, 2018
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This audio-visual spectacular embraced two distinct worlds: that of Astrology – in which Gustav Holst had a considerable interest – and science. Brian Cox is noted for his irrepressible passion for the latter subject – space exploration in particular – having enthused untold numbers of students and viewers over a decade or more. With houselights dimmed and images of stars and planets projected onto walls and the temporary proscenium arch, the Barbican Hall was transformed into what felt almost like a planetarium.
Cox opened by candidly admitting that Holst knew next to nothing about the planets from a scientific point of view, and that The Planets – first-performed exactly one-hundred years ago to the date, Adrian Boult conducting – was essentially founded on his knowledge of astrology. The composer was sympathetic to socialist ideas, and in that context Cox mentioned the notion – which may or may not carry weight for us, he added – that the opening ‘Mars’ could possibly stand for the “ferocity of industrial capitalism”, and that the Suite as a whole moves from that violent state towards the calm of ‘Neptune’ (with ethereal women’s voices). Doubtful that, but he left it to us to digest. Cox also underlined how insignificant earthlings are in a cosmic context, and how crazy is all the strife that divides our nations.
With that out of the way, we moved on to matters entirely scientific, with state-of-the art visuals offering jaw-dropping views of the other worlds, Holst’s music accompanying, so to speak. Ben Gernon and the BBCSO gave a lively and at times quite sensitive account of the score, albeit the dramatic and spiritual content of the music did not come over as powerfully as it can. Boult’s first recording (1945, BBCSO) of his five is uniquely authoritative.
I have to say that I’d rather just listen to Cox masterfully lecturing without the distraction of the music; and experience the music on its own, as intended. The continuity of the piece was inevitably compromised by applause and commentary. But the juxtaposition of music and images was surely precisely what the audience had come to experience, and in terms of presentation the BBC pulled out all the stops – the plethora of images, some transmitted from the outermost planets, was a treat to behold. The TV transmission (scheduled for BBC2 next year) will certainly introduce many thousands of new viewers, of all ages, both to the scientific wonders and to a very imaginative piece of music.