Exploring The Planets with Paul Rissmann
The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32
Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity [world premiere]
Ladies of Philharmonia Voices
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 8 July, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Encompassed within some virtual musical Venn diagram that intersected the Philharmonia Orchestra/Science Museum project Universe of Sound and the Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World, this performance of The Planets Live, upped the ante on the Southbank Centre’s project by leaving the world far behind and heading off into the cosmos.
We had an infectious guide – a cross between the energy of Sir Chris Hoy and the passion for knowledge (and Scottish lilt) of Professor Iain Stewart – in the form of Paul Rissmann in the first half, who, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation and some nice interviews with the Philharmonia’s concertmaster, timpanist and conductor, opened up Holst’s famous suite of seven movements to closer inspection. In the second half Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a full-throttle complete performance of The Planets together with the world premiere of a companion piece commissioned from Joby Talbot, taking us even further from our planet. But more of that later…
The concert started with a truncated version of ‘Jupiter’, skilfully filleting out the hymn tune, before Rissmann took us through each planet in turn, with a nice visual and aural explanation as to how Holst uses the 5/4 ostinato throughout ‘Mars’ in various guises (though, curiously, not elaborating on the half tempo midway through). He also got an admission from concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay about potential damage to the bow playing col legno might inflict, so that players might not be using their best bows this afternoon! After showing how the solo lines of ‘Venus’ epitomise Holst’s use of contrast, Rissmann illustrated the myriad cross-rhythms and rhythmic sleights-of-hand in ‘Mercury’, and proceeded to highlight the horns, who introduce all four themes in ‘Jupiter’, before interviewing timpanist Andrew Smith who took us through the first tune ever given to the timpani.
The violent clashes of ‘Saturn’, Holst’s potential borrowing from Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in ‘Uranus’ (also a magician – the chugging bassoons are rather similar), and the eerie addition of word-less voices in ‘Neptune’, brought Rissmann’s exploration to an end, though it’s Salonen’s description of how influential Holst’s music has been (“for that reason, it’s a masterpiece”), not least in being the first to create his music by layering (exactly how pop and rock is formulated today), and being the antitheses of the Germanic music model, that stick in my mind. Also Salonen’s description of English music being reserved, noble and shy of overt emotional involvement was very apposite, especially – after the interval – in his treatment of the score.
Brilliant, virtuoso and energetic, Salonen’s Planets was vivid and full-blooded. I wondered, given there was a screen to show Rissmann’s slides during the full performance whether we’d have ‘Uranus’ without the organ, but we did get the climactic upward glissando (rather beautifully integrated into the orchestral mix) – and even saw sight of the organist peeping out from behind the screen at the end.
Given the nature of the event and the audience, it was no surprise that there was applause at the end of each movement, save the last as Holst’s distant, oscillating vocalise did not die completely away into silence, as Joby Talbot’s whirring, repeating string figures became audible under the voices and our journey was immeasurably increased from beyond the edges of the solar system into the depths of space.
Now that Colin Matthews’s addition, composed for Kent Nagano and the Hallé has been deemed not a planet (poor Pluto) and Simon Rattle’s Berliner Philharmoniker commissions from such as Brett Dean and Mark-Anthony Turnage are asteroids, Joby Talbot quite literally has the universe to himself (he scored the cinematic version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity presents us with an infectious mix of shifting moods and evolving, overlapping motifs. He originally keeps to Holst’s return to five beats in the bar of ‘Neptune’ (a circular feature connecting to ‘Mars’ not mentioned by Rissmann), the singers walking on from backstage, admittedly at a more propulsive tempo (whipped up admirably by Salonen) and seems to reference portions of Holst’s suite as if viewed through a prism. This culminates in a massive climax, an ostinato that is pounded out just like ‘Mars’, before the music evaporates, leaving only woodwinds twirling around each other into the ether, perhaps sounding somewhere in a different dimension, but no longer in our earshot.