A documentary which comes as part of this issue explains the raison
behind the project. It was designed not just
as a performance of Holst’s suite but as an interactive experience
at the London Science Museum
where participants could act as
conductor, player or even composer as part of an educative project.
Obviously with a DVD issue the interactive part of the whole is severely
curtailed, but the package has to be considered as a whole rather
than as a set of independent parts. Nevertheless it may be useful
to consider first the performance, then the video production and finally
the educative parts in isolation from each other.
Last year I reviewed a recording of The Planets
by this same
orchestra under William Boughton on the Nimbus label. In that article
I pointed out a considerable number of pitfalls that await the unwary,
some of them of the composer’s own creation. One has to say
that nearly all of these are avoided here, although I doubt that any
performance could make Holst’s marked alternations between two
and three beats to the bar in the central section of Mercury
as audible as the composer clearly wished. Elsewhere problems of balance
created by Holst are resolved by close microphone positioning (necessary
for video purposes) and some clearly artificial boosting of individual
players such as the euphonium in Mars.
The only drawback to
this is the very closely observed violin sound; the players themselves
can withstand this level of intense scrutiny, but the harp harmonics
at the end of Uranus
are covered by the string pianissimo
in a way that simply does not happen in live performances. Otherwise
Esa-Pekka Salonen, who clearly loves the work, gives a splendid reading
with perhaps more fire than relaxation.
The video presentation eschews any attempt at showing us the planets
themselves - perhaps an odd omission for a project with which the
Science Museum was involved, but then Holst was writing about the
planets as astrological symbols and not astronomical bodies. What
we get is a straightforward television presentation of the orchestra
playing the score, but the vaunted use of 37 cameras means that we
can get a much more detailed view of individual players than one gets
in the usual concert broadcasts as seen on video and television. There
is a price to be paid for this - in order for the cameras to be able
to manoeuvre, there were consequent difficulties for the players in
co-ordination which necessitated multiple takes and, as already observed,
the resulting balance is somewhat artificial. This problem is exacerbated
by the fact that the organ - spliced in afterwards from a completely
different venue - is seen on screen, while the singers, similarly
added after the event by multi-tracking, are never seen at all.
This close observation of the orchestra by the cameras is inevitable
given the educational and didactic purpose which the video also seeks
to fulfil. One can also watch the performance with commentaries by
the conductor - although I was unable to access this facility on any
of the three players with which I tried - and members of the orchestra.
The latter demonstrate particular problems in the score insofar as
their own parts are concerned while also ranging quite widely over
discussions concerning emotion in music and its effect on players.
There’s also a delightfully diverting commentary concerning
Mantovani of all people. These insights would be particularly valuable
not only to newcomers to the score - who can also access spoken introductions
to each movement - but also to professionals. I certainly discovered
some aspects of the score of which I was previously unaware, and all
composers should take note of the continual complaints of the players
over unhelpfully placed page turns in orchestral parts. One point
of controversy here: on several occasions the players remark upon
the fact that they alter Holst’s written score in order to take
advantage of improvements in technique and instruments since his day.
I don’t imagine the composer would have objected to this. I
had certainly never noticed the minor adjustments involved. That said,
how does this square with the principle of ‘faithfulness to
the composer’s intentions’ upon which we are always being
lectured when Beethoven, for example, is involved?
In order to extend this educational role to the process of composition,
the orchestra commissioned a new piece by Joby Talbot to round off
the suite. This is not a new idea. Colin Matthews produced a movement
some years ago called Pluto, the renewer
just in time for Pluto
to be robbed of its planetary status. He made the unwise decision
to splice this movement into the choral ‘fade’ which terminates
the suite in its original form - and incidentally spoil one of Holst’s
most novel innovations in the score. Here unfortunately Joby Talbot
in his movement Worlds, stars, systems, infinity
has made exactly
the same miscalculation - the music for the final movement begins
before Holst’s score has really ended. This means that listeners
must perforce have this additional movement as well. Talbot has great
fun with Holst’s massive orchestra, to which he adds further
instruments (meditation bowls, a massive rack of crotales) and instrumental
effects (timpani glissandos,
stopped horns and various modern
trumpets mutes) to conjure up a grandly impressive movement. Then
again, it doesn’t really have much to do with Holst - despite
some quotations from Holst’s textures which end the piece with
its depiction of infinity. Also his use of the offstage chorus as
a full element in the orchestral texture goes against Holst’s
deliberate distancing of the singers from the orchestra.
In an accompanying documentary we are told that patrons at the Science
Museum were able to interact with the compositional process, transferring
passages from one group of instruments to another to compare the effect.
This was doubtless valuable in that context but for video presentation
it might have been better to separate the Talbot movement off to a
completely independent track.
There are not many musical works that could stand up to this degree
of close scrutiny, but fortunately Holst’s Planets
one of them. Ivan Hewett for the Daily Telegraph
original exhibition at the Science Museum, and observed that “For
newcomers to the orchestra, this installation certainly gives a taste
of its amazing richness. But it could be useful to music-students
too, keen to get some tips on how to balance winds against brass.”
I am sure he is right about this, not having seen the ‘installation’
myself - but I note from the Philharmonia’s website that they
intend to tour the exhibition to Canterbury and Birmingham during
2013 before it is “developed for international touring”.
I would certainly, on the basis of my experience of this DVD, make
an effort to catch it.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
See also review by John
Masterwork Index: The