BBC Proms 2017 – John Wilson conducts Holst’s The Planets & Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony

CBSO Youth Chorus (female voices), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson (above)

Vaughan Williams Symphony No.9 in E minor (1957)

Holst The Planets, Op.32 (1917)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Firmly established at the Proms during this past decade through his high-profile musical and film programmes, John Wilson has enjoyed relatively little exposure in terms of the classical repertoire for which he evidently feels great affinity. His recent appointment as the Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra should hopefully rectify this, and this early-evening concert cannily juxtaposed what has long been regarded as Vaughan Williams’s most recalcitrant (and underrated) symphony with what will always be Holst’s most popular work.

As dense in texture as it is ambiguous in content, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony has enjoyed limited advocacy (it went un-played at these concerts for almost three decades after 1960), though it has latterly enjoyed something of a return to favour and one anticipated that Wilson would have its measure. What resulted was something of a curate’s egg in terms of interpretation, not least in an opening movement whose Moderato maestoso marking was scarcely evident – Wilson favouring a fluid approach as emphasized this music’s ominous import while leaving the (often shaky) orchestral ensemble to fend for itself. Better in this respect was the second movement, its sombre and Hardy-inspired imagery made tangible through haunting flugelhorn solos and the baleful music that intervenes at crucial moments.

Neither was the militaristic scherzo wanting in impetus, though here Wilson’s preference for deftly sprung rhythms and relatively transparent textures served to rob this music of its sheer malevolence. Much the hardest movement to bring off, the lengthy finale emerged surely and methodically – its polyphonic weave rendered with a clarity that not even the expanse of the Albert Hall acoustic could deny – to an apotheosis more telling for its tangible equivocation. Whether those blazing E major chords convey affirmation or resignation is open to question.

The Planets has, of course, never looked back over the near-century since it first astounded a public confronted with the terrors of mechanized war. Perhaps one should not be surprised that Wilson was at pains to play down its cinematic quality (hardly something of which Holst could have been aware in any case) – his vehement take on Mars proceeding an eloquent if slightly cloying Venus; itself followed by an almost dance-like Mercury and an incisive Jupiter at its best in a trio section that managed to eschew almost all trace of false solemnity

By contrast, Saturn succeeded better in its listless opening and radiant closing sections than in the anguished music at its centre; Wilson’s preference for measured tempi continuing into an unusually steady Uranus marked by deadpan humour and the spectacularly OTT organ glissando at its climax. The enigmatic Neptune was almost as successful, its disembodied textures securely rendered by the BBCSSO, though a lack of integration with the wordless voices in its latter stages meant that the close felt less ‘other-worldly’ than it needed to be.

Overall, a promising showing for what ought to develop into a productive and worthwhile association. Wilson palpably has much to contribute in this repertoire, and what technical flaws there were only intermittently undercut the qualities of these probing performances.

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

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