Doctor Atomic Symphony [revised version]
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32
London Philharmonic Choir (women’s voices)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 23 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
An elegant programme marrying works with an astronomical or scientific significance brought Marin Alsop back to the London Philharmonic for a concert that included Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall, designated as its London premiere (but it was not, see link below) and the work which it was written to accompany, Holst’s The Planets.
Dean’s eight-minute depiction of the tragedy of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov was commissioned from Dean’s former employer; after leaving his post as the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal violist to focus on composition, Dean received a request from the orchestra to compose one of a series of ‘Asteroids’ (Kaija Saariaho and Mark-Anthony Turnage were other composers involved). The result headed this space-age programme and was in many ways the highlight. Dean’s musical description of Komarov’s plummet to Earth during re-entry in 1967 related the juddering terror of the cosmonaut’s sub-orbital freefall, though moments of stillness were even more effective. In the coda, the violence was suddenly curtailed, leaving trilling flutes and piccolo wafting over pianissimo string harmonics, as though all that remained of Komarov’s plight were wisps of debris and unsettled air. At the work’s opening, tiny points of sound gradually built into a fuller texture; dispelling silence, suggesting the quickly thickening atmosphere around Komarov’s tiny craft and, perhaps, that in space, no one can hear you sing.
Marin Alsop has become something of a champion of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, a re-working of material from his 2005 opera. This is the second time she’s conducted the piece with the London Philharmonic in the past year, and it’s London’s third hearing of this revised version since the beginning of 2010 (the other being the composer himself conducting the LSO). Adams presented a much longer version of the score at the BBC Proms in 2007, but expressed dissatisfaction with the results and trimmed the 50-minute work into its present 25 minutes. The opera itself, produced at English National Opera in 2009, was problematic: some fantastic music and an appetising subject (the creation of the first atomic bomb) was allied to a libretto cobbled together from numerous pre-existing texts which cast little light on the moral or human tensions surrounding the atomic project. That text was jettisoned for this orchestral summary, but Adams has cast his symphony from some of the opera’s weaker musical material. The one exception is the justly celebrated John Donne setting ‘Batter my heart’, extracted from the end of the opera’s first act and planted at the end of the symphony, though even this is diminished by its extraction. Paul Beniston’s fine trumpet playing could not mask the distinct diminishing of intensity of this music in its purely orchestral garb; in its original operatic form, the gripping word setting owed as much to Gerald Finley’s searing portrayal of the opera’s protagonist, Nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, as to Adams’s bewitching moment of genius. Alsop’s direction was taut, though more preparation might have uncovered greater degrees of dynamic contrast and variation in sections of the work otherwise lacking in momentum.
After the physics of Doctor Atomic and the human interest of Komarov’s Fall, Holst’s The Planets steered the programme towards the mystical. Holst’s solar system isn’t overly concerned with astronomy; instead it’s the astrological significance of the various celestial bodies described that informs the music. Ultimately, though, Alsop tended toward the efficient, generally brisk in tempo and rarely shaped. ‘Mars’ held less than the ideal degree of menace, while the impish dance of ‘Mercury’ was flatfooted. Occasionally Alsop’s no-nonsense approach stripped-back some of the veneer: a lighter ‘Jupiter’ than usual dispensed with the triumphalism and the playing was always superb with the perfectly balanced wind ensemble of ‘Venus’ a particular highlight. But Alsop’s time-keeping often did little to disguise some of Holst’s less successful paragraph-like constructions, and a bad case of inter-planetary applause put paid to Holst’s carefully managed transitions between movements.