Noisy Planets

Anna Meredith
noisy [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
The Planets, Op.32

Lars Vogt (piano)

Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

You have to be a bit cunning to hear a “Sound Adventures” commission. These ‘surprise’ new works (18 of them from UK-based composers over three years (this is the second) – well publicised as an initiative but kept under wraps as to when played, which means you have to spot a ‘hole’ into which a new work will be slotted, but if it’s a ‘two-night’ concert (as this one was) there’ll still only be one airing of it. Thus, those who attended Saturday’s performance heard ‘just’ the Grieg and Holst.

‘Heard’ rather than ‘listened’ is apt for certain members of the audience who made Sunday’s presentation – unguarded coughs no matter how quiet the music, coins dropped (!), a long-ringing mobile (in the most remote of The Planets, as then known to Holst) and some idle chatter were just some of the incidents that took some of the gloss from this concert. And whether the idea of keeping the new pieces under wraps ‘works’ or not can be questioned, certainly by those who do want to hear them!

As composer Anna Meredith (born in 1978) is associated to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and noisy is her fourth orchestral work. It’s a traditional orchestral scherzo, its musical interest rather smothered by trendy ‘industrial’ percussion that palled early on (Tansy Davies had done something similar in Tilting, the first LSO/UBS commission); underneath there seemed an interesting piece trying to get out (with Stravinsky and Turnage suggested as influences) although its brashness was certainly evident as was Meredith’s own confidence. But sameness crept in two-thirds of the way through and the six minutes seemed longer than that; more rhythmic and timbral variety was craved. The strings were a desk or two short in all departments, no doubt by design, but winds, brass and, of course, percussion seemed to outweigh the strings and some of the writing for the latter should surely have been as clear to the ear as it was to the eye.

Lars Vogt was in capricious mood for Grieg’s Piano Concerto. There was much that was wonderfully delicate, deft and consciously shaped, but there was also a nondescript loudness and a percussive attack that suggested he was bored and needed to pep things up. It did Grieg no favours, and some sectionalising tempos made the work seem more discursive that usual. The London Symphony Orchestra offered a fresh and outgoing accompaniment that was sometimes more ‘Song of Norway’ than innate to Grieg, and there were some fine orchestral solos – not least the excellent ‘guest’ lead-cellist in place of Tim Hugh or Moray Welsh. She was unnamed in the programme (unless it was Rachel Gilliver, Co-Principal?). Why the LSO cannot accurately list personnel for each concert, as all the other London orchestras helpfully do, remains a years-old mystery.

As in noisy the first of The Planets – ‘Mars’ – wasn’t always kind to the strings (now at full strength) and Richard Hickox took the war-like connotation a bit too literally. ‘Venus’ (Peace) enjoyed quietude (audience aside) if slightly too retarded a tempo; some radiant playing though. ‘Mercury’ was an ideal ‘Winged Messenger’, paced to perfection, not too fast, and played with a lightness of touch that was a joy. ‘Jupiter’ was genuinely ‘jolly’ and the hymn-tune not indulged, while ‘Saturn’ (‘Old Age’) was dark, funereal, very slowly paced (well judged) and the climaxes were visceral; tubular bells, horns, harps and (electronic) organ were effectively vivid, and well-balanced, in the mysterious closing section. ‘Uranus’ hung fire at too deliberate a tempo, and ‘Neptune’ – despite the indignities hurled at it by some of the audience, and the LSO, too (whoever opened the hatch-door at the back of the platform, as a portal to the distant ladies’ choir (its receding very well managed), did so with a very obtrusive ‘bang’ – was glacially atmospheric. Colin Matthews was in the audience, but no ‘Pluto’ tonight!


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