Philharmonia Planets Plus

The Banks of Green Willow: idyll
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32 … including …
Colin Matthews
Pluto, the renewer

Steven Isserlis (cello)

London Symphony Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 18 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Banks of Green Willow depicts an idyllic notion of rural England celebrated in verse by Rupert Brooke and in prose by Kenneth Grahame. Two folksongs are played dreamily, punctuated by a livelier intermission and signed-off with a melancholic and twilit envoi. Richard Hickox and the Philharmonia Orchestra caught the style beautifully and exactly. Above gently diaphanous strings, a fluted melody plays as if borne aloft by a harp. The folksong is a dragonfly, hovering serenely in a time-stopped afternoon haze. One cavil: the agitated bridge-passage was rather too savage – a short, vicious squall rather than a sudden, almost apologetic infringement of Edwardian somnolence; Maya Iwabuchi played an expressive violin solo.

Fittingly, Elgar’s Cello Concerto seemed connected to the Butterworth, and was played gently, drowsily and dreamily – as a sustained idyll. Steven Isserlis ruminatively displayed a soft, smooth, calculated lethargy – wistful and, in 1919, a pining for the gentle, innocent summers pre-1914. Hickox’s accompaniment was in similar vein. Isserlis’s playing verged on the indulgent. The mood he sought was tenaciously introspective, but not probing. He declined to engage with the energies of rhythm or pulse. Tellingly, a resolute timpani-roll from Andrew Smith during the first movement could not avoid exposing the cello-playing as flaccid.

The Planets is not a favourite of mine. Is the work as suitable for children as many adults claim? For children, surely, the highlight of the work comes first – ‘Mars, the bringer of war’. It’s a blockbuster – brash, ever louder and rasping towards its splintered end. Not quite at this concert. Nothing matched Andrew Smith’s solo drum at the beginning – powerful and frightening, mesmeric and thrilling. The volume may have increased, but the menace did not.

‘Venus, the bringer of peace’ and ‘Mercury, the winged messenger’ come next. They are rather tame; each one begins quite interestingly, proceeding to a long middle section that settles lengthily into a dismaying conventionality of ideas and instrumentation. The Philharmonia did its best, as always. ‘Jupiter, the bringer of jollity’ brings the work to life again (and the children?). “One of those jolly, fat people who enjoy life,” said the composer. Musically, it’s little of the kind. There is, however, a ‘big tune’ – rousing and patriotic, and it received its due, resoundingly.

‘Saturn, the bringer of old age’, as Holst realised, is the best movement musically, a serene, distilled mood, shimmering icily and timelessly static. It is mystic, ascetic and other-worldly, its gaze is constant and intense (and like the photograph of Holst in the programme). The Philharmonia’s playing matched the mood: still and rapt. ‘Uranus, the magician’ was a letdown, but ‘Neptune, the mystic’ made its mark. In remote, ethereal, upper regions of the universe, a wordless choir elusively indicating that we were now outside time altogether.

We finished, exuberantly, with Colin Matthews’s ‘Pluto, the renewer’. Its instrumentation is more adventurous and challenging than Holst’s. Matthews is true to himself – yet nodding at Holst’s features. ‘Pluto’ rose to a splendid, focussed climax – and ended softly with the unseen choir’s mystic echo.

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