Prom 14: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony & Gustav Holst’s The Planets – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.9 in E-minor
The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32

CBSO Youth Chorus (female voices)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 25 July, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

John Wilson conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Vaughan Williams and Holst at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Mark Allan/BBCThe Royal Albert Hall knows him best as the man who extended the concept of authentic period performance to the work of the great twentieth-century songwriters and their arrangers but, in the ten years since John Wilson first directed a programme of Great British Film Music with the BBC Concert Orchestra, he has emerged as a significant interpreter of concert pieces from both sides of the Atlantic. This was his first Prom of Western art music as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Guest Conductor, a post he took up in September last year.

Some listeners may already have perceived the Holstian shards in last week’s John Williams Prom (No.8). And there’s a further hidden Hollywood connection in that it was Henry Wood who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first stab at The Planets, on 14 July 1925. At that time it was still Proms practice to perform only selected numbers, The Planets being considered challenging stuff. Today, when we’re usually given the whole Suite with or without Colin Matthews’s controversial Pluto appendage, it is difficult to make the music challenging enough. That Wilson directed a performance that often managed to sound fresh is a testament to his flair. Still, this wasn’t the unmitigated triumph that might have been expected. There was spangly colour and Ravelian deftness about many passages but the final iteration of the hymn-tune of ‘Jupiter’ struck me as pompous. Both ‘Venus’ and ‘Saturn’ were too slow for comfort, the latter a deathly processional which might have worked with classier musicians and/or a more attentive audience; and ‘Venus’ had also embraced a range of playing styles (bags of portamento at one stage) which didn’t quite come off. ‘Mercury’ fluttered nicely and ‘Uranus’ was enlivened by a thunderous glissando from the organ, the massive instrument very much a feature of this performance. Neptune’s slow choral fade was nicely done too.

John Wilson conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Vaughan Williams and Holst at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Mark Allan/BBCWilson’s love of Vaughan Williams is no secret – he has conducted many of the Symphonies and recently took on the Five Tudor Portraits with the CBSO. His Ninth, placed first on the bill, promised to revive memories of 2008’s Vaughan Williams Anniversary Prom at which Sir Andrew Davis excelled. This time the once-neglected score was being played in OUP’s new, spruced-up edition with minor revisions, most audible in the closing stages. One can’t be sure whether that final sax-tinted swell is transcendentally positive, neutral and accepting or merely baleful. Wilson took an essentially optimistic (and cymbal-capped) view, as he had of the first movement. Scarcely Moderato maestoso on this occasion, it flew by in a single breath that threatened to become a gabble. The aim may have been to ensure symphonic continuity and make the part-writing sound less awkward but the dynamic range was oddly narrow. Here and elsewhere the music’s now uncertain pastoral reveries lacked the poignancy that Davis found with little trace either of the “mellow loveliness” promised by the content providers for BBC Online. The start of the Andante was wrecked by the antics of latecomers. The effect of the acoustic – let’s be charitable – was to make Hedley Benson’s flugelhorn sound slightly adrift.

The coupling was a logical one given the friendship of the composers and their shared preoccupation with Thomas Hardy and, despite the absence of a star soloist, it attracted a near-capacity crowd. If only more people had come prepared to listen. There was desultory clapping between movements in the VW, when the conductor’s pointed body language and whole interpretative approach made it plain that he did not want it, yet only one such intervention in the Holst. It was the coughing, chatting, munching and hand-held scrolling which were most disruptive. Once again Radio 3 listeners may have been luckier.

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