There was a distinctly mystical feel to this Prom. The intelligently structured programme was bookended by two works that delved into their respective composers’ spiritual beliefs – Holst’s The Planets suite, and Scriabin’s single-movement symphony, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire. In between, came Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces.
The Planets is such a well-known and popular work (at least for British audiences) that it is easy to forget just how avant garde it was when initially penned in 1914. Its complexity and ingenuity were the qualities that conductor Vladimir Jurowski focused on in this stimulating and sensitive performance. In the opening ‘Mars’ movement he ratcheted up the tension with a slightly faster-than-usual tempo (bringing to mind the mocking march of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony), coupled with precision-edged playing. Sadly, the crashing final chords were followed by an outbreak of clapping by some sections of the audience. This turned out to be something of a habit, with every movement of both the suite and the Five Orchestral Pieces punctuated by rounds of applause. Jurowski did not look pleased, but he held both his tongue and his nerve to deliver a sublimely eloquent ‘Venus’, and a quicksilver ‘Mercury’.
‘Jupiter’ is the most conventional of all the movements and the orchestra and conductor gave it the full Elgarian treatment. ‘Saturn’ was reputedly Holst’s favourite, although it tends to be the least loved amongst listeners. Still, there was concentrated, haunting playing to enjoy. The delivery of ‘Uranus’ – Holst’s answer to Dukas’ Apprentice and Stravinsky’s Firebird magicians – was brash and rhythmic, but a little brass heavy, resulting in a disappointingly inaudible organ glissando. ‘Neptune’, however, was superb – as mystical and hypnotic as Debussy’s sirens, with a finely judged performance from the female voices of the London Philharmonic Chorus, hidden from view somewhere under the Royal Albert Hall dome.
After all that astrological mysticism, Jurowski’s rendition of Schoenberg’s 1909 Five Orchestral Pieces fell a little short. The opening ‘Premonitions’ sounded tame, despite the composer’s bold scoring (something that clearly influenced Holst, who was present at the 1912 Proms world premiere, and who initially entitled his Planets suite Seven Pieces for Orchestra). The second and third pieces, subtitled ‘The Past’ and ‘Chord-colours’ respectively, felt a little lightweight and matter-of-fact. The spiky rhythms of ‘Peripeteia’ lacked humour, although the contrapuntal figurations and cathartic climax of ‘The Obbligato Recitative’ did raise the temperature somewhat.
Prometheus, was more successful – musically at least. Scriabin claimed to see sounds as colours. He even called for the incorporation into the score of Prometheus of a clavier à lumières (a sort of colour organ) which would bathe performers and audience in coloured lights, corresponding to his music’s tonal shadings. In response, lighting designer Lucy Carter devised a ‘free interpretation’ of Scriabin’s instructions. But the display of lurid colours onto players and audience (not to mention screen projections of waves, stars, organic blobs and – predictably – flickering flames) were more of a gaudy distraction. The playing on its own was more than enough to satisfy the senses. Passion, exactitude and sheer enjoyment marked out this performance, with the full LP Chorus on fine form, and Alexander Toradze taking on the punchy piano obbligato.
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