The Planets, John Challenger (organ), Salisbury Cathedral ★★★★☆
Holst’s Planets suite is perhaps the most popular British orchestral piece ever written, and yet it never seems trite. The eternal human fascination with the planets serves to keep it fresh, as does the undeniable genius of the music.
On Saturday night, Holst’s masterpiece at Salisbury Cathedral received an intriguing makeover, in the form of a new arrangement for the cathedral’s own organ, built in 1877 by this country’s most famous organ builder, Henry Willis. In the darkness of the vast nave – with only dim atmospheric colored light leading the eye to the heights of the vaulted ceiling, and with planetary images projected on a screen – the imagination was certainly more stimulated than in the prosaic light of a concert hall.
All this led the spirit up and out into space. Going the other way, to the human meaning of planets, were short poems by their author Martin Figura between the movements that mused on how planetary influences intertwine in everyday aspects of our lives. This felt appropriate, as there is a lot of everyday human expressiveness in Holst’s piece; think of those jovial, romping outdoor parade episodes in Jupiter, so far removed from the glacial mysteries of Saturn and Neptune.
This imaginative world seems so attached to Holst’s wildly colorful orchestration that it’s hard to imagine the organ could adequately emulate it. Yet this new version, created by John Challenger, the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, has worked out remarkably well. Challenger performed his arrangement himself, and thanks to strategically placed cameras looking over his shoulders at his hands, as well as his feet near the pedals, we could both see and hear just how ingenious his arrangement was. Those hands were constantly fluttering between the organ’s four manuals (keyboards) to catch Holst’s subtle color changes, and occasionally pull a stop or push a piston there. It was a great piece of virtuosity.
As for the music, it took on fascinating new, or maybe you should say old, colours. The famous grand melody in Jupiter sounded more like a hymn (which it eventually became); the vibrating sound of “vox humana” stops gave Saturn a different kind of mystery. Mercury’s running sprite-like sounds, which you’d think would sound boring on an organ, came across as lively. Overall, the play took on an intriguing Gothic mystery that seemed both interestingly novel and utterly right. The end of Neptune, where the voices of the cathedral choristers and contralto vicars carried the music to an infinite distance, has never seemed so magical.
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Uchida, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★
Post-lockdown nerves can still dampen audience enthusiasm, but for certain artists, those nerves are just melting away. Wednesday night’s sold-out concert at the Royal Festival Hall was a good example of this. On stage was the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which, although young, has already acquired the aura of much more venerable orchestras. And in the midst of them at the piano, with her back to us, conspicuous in blue and green and silver shoes, was pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who also conducted the orchestra.
Uchida has twice recorded Mozart’s complete piano concertos and tonight’s performances of the 25th and 27th concertos were filled with life wisdom. They were impeccable, understated and imbued with that special pearly beauty of sound that has always been her trademark.
Some might say her tone is too unchangingly soft, but the softness encourages you to listen more deeply and notice small but telling things. One was the moment in the first part of the 27th when the orchestra tiptoed into strange harmonic regions, an effect Uchida magnified by stepping back on the tempo and what felt like a huge hiatus (although it was actually milliseconds ) for her. own soloist. As a result, her own melody seemed to come from a lost and lonely region.
Another telling moment was the opening of the 25th, which kicks off with grandeur on the parade ground. Some performers emphasize the grand opening chords by putting a pause between them, some play them in a strict marching tempo; Uchida and the orchestra somehow managed to do both at the same time.
The players gathered around the piano responded to Uchida’s urgent hand gestures with sweet, relaxed sophistication, full of subtle touches of their own. In the first part of the 27th, the interplay of the flute, oboe and bassoon players (unfortunately not mentioned in the program) was so delightful that I actually forgot about the soloist for a while.
Magnificent as these performances were, they were overshadowed by Schoenberg’s dazzling First Chamber Symphony, which came between the two concerts. This is music with red-hot intensity, in which every instrumental piece is maximally expressive at every moment. It may seem hidden and impenetrable, but in this dizzying performance, both the furious complexity of the music and the rare moments of quiet tenderness shone with perfect clarity and irresistible power. IH