Howard Ellipsis (2021) [RPO Commission: World Premiere]
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Holst The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)
Mao Fujita (piano, above), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)
Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 3 February 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo credit (Mao Fujita) Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Getty Images
Great British Music is the theme underlying the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at Royal Festival Hall – a major work of the earlier 20th century complemented by music elsewhere in Europe and, in this instance, a commission from a young British composer.
Her output widely championed, not least by the RPO’s new music director Vasily Petrenko, Dani Howard is already master of the curtain-raiser. Hence the engaging yet never superficial effect of Ellipsis – her tribute to this orchestra in its 75th anniversary which alludes to various pieces and personages in its history, with a deftness that made for an appealing if not overly memorable listen. Not in doubt, though, was the keen motivic resource with which the piece unfolded from its fanfare-like opening bars towards the fervent apotheosis at its culmination.
Only caution through its origins in borrowed material can have prevented Rachmaninov from designating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as his ‘Fifth Piano Concerto’. Certainly, those volatile mood-swings of its initial 15 variations, inward rapture of the next three then tensile incisiveness of the closing six variations constitute a three-movement design whose Classical proportions are informed by the developmental ingenuity of a later era. Qualities Mao Fujita brought out in notable measure during a performance which lacked little in technical finesse.
One of a handful of pieces whose all-round audacity was the incentive rather than deterrent to its immediate acceptance, The Planets was destined to prove the defining work of Holst’s career whose sheer impact a century and more has not diminished. Petrenko was evidently keen to emphasize its symphonic dimension through allying its seven movements to a broad consistency of pulse – witness the follow-through from his remorseless while never unduly histrionic take on Mars to his sensuous if never cloying approach to Venus. The former saw a suitably galvanic response from the RPO brass, the latter an elegance and poise from its strings which was no less evident in Petrenko’s lithe Mercury, then a Jupiter whose impetuous outer sections framed an eloquent and unaffected handling of the indelible trio.
Even the (doubtless) spontaneous applause which greeted this most familiar section did not undermine contrast with the emotional starkness of Saturn as it headed towards a climax of wrenching plangency, before finding release in a final stage that was nothing if not cathartic. The only passing disappointment came with Petrenko’s skittish and over-hasty rendering of Uranus, such as forced the martial main theme into a rhythmic straitjacket (for all that the climactic organ glissando made its mark) then detracted from the emptiness of its final bars. Not that this prevented Neptune from casting an otherworldly spell – whether in the modal musing at its start, those ethereal textures near its centre, or the gentle evanescing into which orchestra and wordless voices (the laudable RCM Chamber Choir) withdraw toward its close. If not a revelatory account, this was nevertheless a committed and involving performance that renewed admiration for Holst’s magnum opus as well as reinforcing the overall excellence of the Royal Philharmonic in the early stages of what looks set to be an era of real achievement.