The Planets Plus Pluto

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Piano Concerto
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32 … concluding with …
Colin Matthews
Pluto, the Renewer

Steven Osborne (piano)

New London Chamber Choir (women’s voices)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 8 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A capacity audience heard some of the finest works composed by three 20th-century English composers, united by a love and admiration for Tudor music. Indeed Vaughan Williams used a tune by the great 16th-century composer, Thomas Tallis, as the basis for his Fantasia.

This is an early work by Vaughan Williams but arguably he never bettered it in his long compositional career. Martyn Brabbins used the cathedral-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall to good advantage with his orchestral layout, the smaller group of strings at the very back of the platform, and all the violinists and violists asked to stand, which enabled the ear to distinguish between the myriad and often inter-connected thematic threads woven by Vaughan Williams. Brabbins captured the quiet, serene opening to perfection and was faithful to the composer’s requirements for rich string sonorities. There could have been more passion in the great climax, but the orchestral soloists, particularly the solo viola player of the string quartet, produced a luminous sound that touched the heart.

So infrequently is Michael Tippett’s wonderful Piano Concerto performed, and all the more reason then to welcome it as part of the Proms celebration of Tippett’s centenary. It is surely one of his most approachable works. Even so, quite a few of the audience walked out at the end of the slow movement and there was an unseemly exodus at the end – a remarkable lack of appreciation.

It was a shame, nevertheless, that the soloist and conductor settled on a rather ponderous opening tempo for the glorious singing theme that opens the work, which was apparently inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto or at least Walter Gieseking’s playing of it. Thus the first movement, one of haunting sounds, lacked contrast between the sweetly lyrical and the more rhetorical elements. The slow middle movement seems to be a sequence of dream-like experiences in which the pianist never settles into a given rhythm. Osborne did well to bring out the often-ethereal nature of the music and Brabbins produced an orchestral backdrop that complemented the elevated spirit of the music. There was dynamism aplenty in the sparkling finale and soloist and orchestra combined to uplifting effect.

Holst’s The Planets received what appears to be its every-year Proms outing! Regarded by some as an old war-horse, and others as the precursor into British modernism, Brabbins emphasised the latter to wonderful effect. Even the great tune in ‘Jupiter’ was played with a straight face with no cloying phrasing. The whole performance was launched at a tremendous pace with ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. Indeed its terror has never sounded more relevant.The highlight was ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’, with Brabbins coaxing truly modernist sonorities from his responsive players. The whole Suite was refreshingly played and it culminated in the recent addition, ‘Pluto, the Renewer’, composed by Colin Matthews. This fast-paced, short movement cunningly incorporates some of Holst’s sounds but also has its own integrity.

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