Houston Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall – The Planets, An HD Odyssey

Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op.23a
Chant du rossignol
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32

Women’s Voices of the Holst Singers

Houston Symphony Orchestra
Hans Graf

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 16 October, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Why The Planets – An HD Odyssey, you may ask. Filmmaker Duncan Copp has created a video accompaniment to Holst’s music, utilising NASA films of the far planets, which, I imagine, are meant to visually describe the music. “…we felt we really had to push the envelope with regards to our editing technique”, Copp has said. It’s a shame that he didn’t push the envelope a little further and bother to find out what Holst’s music is really about.

The work may be called The Planets but Holst was interested in astrology, not astronomy, as he wrote to a friend, in 1913, “Recently the character of each planet has suggested lots to me…”, and that is why each movement has a title and a subtitle, ‘Mars, The Bringer of War’, ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’, and so on. Therefore, to play Mars and accompany it with pictures of a dead planet is nonsense – Egdon Heath would be better suited – photos of carnage would be a much better choice. But, perhaps, Copp is trying a conceit – such as the old French conceits of I burn in ice and I freeze in fire – or perhaps he simply had some great pictures to show and he was going to show them no matter what. Whatever Copp is attempting, he ruined a very fine piece of music. What is more, the further into outer space he ventured the fewer images he had to offer and all we had were continual pictures of a round ball hanging in the vast nothingness of space.

The performance of the music didn’t come to life either. Mars was lacking all feelings of menace, Mercury wasn’t sufficiently fleet of foot, Saturn lacked a real aged tread, Uranus was a pleasant heavy-footed dance rather than the malevolent twisted brother of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and, in Neptune, although the ladies were suitably distant, we could hear when they stopped singing and Holst’s vision of sound fading away into the further reaches was totally lost. The Houston Symphony is a fine orchestra, but one needs more than perfect playing to make a piece of music come alive.

The Barber and Stravinsky (Song of the Nightingale) were well done, but, like the Holst, lacked finesse and subtlety, and there was never a real pianissimo at any time. Best of all was the first encore, a rip-roaring account of Liadov’s delicious picture of an old witch, Baba-Yaga.

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