BBC Symphony Orchestra – 8th March

Photograph of George Crumb

The Planets
Pluto, the Renewer

Valdine Anderson (soprano)
Columba Ringers
New London Children’s Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kazushi Ono
Rumon Gamba*
Christopher Austin*
John Gibbons*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 March, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Twenty-one years ago, George Crumb’s Star-Child received its UK premiere to a largely negative response. Had times changed to the extent where this ambitious conflation of spatial organisation and new-age metaphysics could reveal something deeper in its hallowed progress from darkness to light?

The short answer is no, though the experience of hearing the work live was by no means wasted. The sensitivity to timbre and harmonic nuance which Crumb has demonstrated in his instrumental and vocal works is everywhere in evidence, but in transferring this thinking onto the largest scale, the elusive factor of inspiration seems to have gone missing. Thus the melodic ’mantra’ which dominates the opening stages, and is always present by implication, is pure ’Central Park’ Ives with Bartókian harmonic colouring.

It provides a basis for ’Voice Crying in the Wilderness’, sung with verve and refinement by Valdine Anderson and quasi-humorously ghosted by a speaking trombonist, before the Carl Orff-cum-Jerry Goldsmith onslaught of ’Music of the Apocalypse’. The literal but arresting depiction of ’Seven Trumpets of the Apocalypse’ makes way for the chastened return of the soprano, and a final coming-together of forces in ’Hymn for the New Age’ – replete with handbell ringers, during which the mantra migrates simply but affectingly to an offstage quartet of violins.

Make no mistake, Star-Child is enjoyable and absorbing live – primarily for the manner in which the elaborate forces, needing four conductors to co-ordinate the stratified musical layers, lock into a seamless flow of stasis and dynamism. But the intrinsic quality of the music is another matter, and the relative paucity of ideas only rarely seems to justify the complex instrumentation. If only for the experience, this was a worthwhile revival, and Kazushi Ono was confidently in control of proceedings.

As he was in the bright and breezy account of The Planets. ’Mars’ was pugnacious, ’Venus’ mildly sensuous, ’Mercury’ engagingly articulated, ’Jupiter’ bracingly unsubtle, ’Saturn’ successfully mingled crisis and repose, ’Uranus’ vivid if heavy-handed, ’Neptune’ a little too comfortable in its other-worldliness – save for the too-offstage chorus.

Ono conducted from memory, as he did Colin Matthews’s Pluto – which followed on rather too brusquely. An action-packed six minutes, it justifies itself through adroitness of pacing rather than memorable ideas. Avoiding pastiche Holst, it skirts perilously close to anonymity. An interesting, and by no means objectionable idea – thoughtfully realised, but performances are unlikely to feature it as an appendix too far into the future.

  • This concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday, 9 April, at 7.30 Click here to Listen on-line
  • This Friday, 22 March at 7.30, the BBCSO and Sir Andrew Davis give the world premiere of Brian Elias’s The House that Jack built. Also in the programme is Debussy’s La mer, Mozart’s D major violin concerto (K211) and Scenes from Comus by Hugh Wood – live relay on BBC Radio 3 Click here to Listen on-line
  • Barbican Box Office: 020 7628 2326
  • A new recording of The Planets with Pluto has been issued by Naxos – click here to read review

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