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 hackneyed. The eternal human fascination with planets serves to keep it fresh, as does the undoubted genius of music.
On Saturday night at Salisbury Cathedral, Holst’s masterpiece 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 dimly atmospheric colored lighting taking the eye to the heights of the vaulted ceiling, and with planetary images projected on a screen, one’s imagination certainly fired more than in the mundane light of a concert hall.
All this led the mind up and out into space. Leading the other way, towards the human meaning of the planets, were short poems delivered by their author Martin Figura among the movements that reflected on the way in which planetary influences are woven into the 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, playful outdoor parade episodes on Jupiter, so far removed from the icy mysteries of Saturn and Neptune.
This imaginative world seems so tied to Holst’s enormously colorful orchestration that it’s hard to imagine the organ could adequately recreate it. However, this new version, performed by John Challenger, the cathedral’s deputy director of music, was remarkably successful. Challenger did his arrangement himself, and thanks to strategically placed cameras looking at his hands over his shoulders, as well as his feet on the pedals, we were able to see and hear just how inventive his arrangement was. Those hands constantly flitted between the organ’s four manuals (keyboards) to catch Holst’s subtle color changes, occasionally stopping here or pressing a piston there. It was an amazing feat of virtuosity.
As for the music, it took on fascinating new, or maybe I should say old, colors. The famous great Jupiter tune sounded more like a hymn tune (which it eventually became); the shimmering sound of “vox humana” stops gave Saturn a different kind of mystery. Mercury’s pixie-like sounds, which you might think would sound dull on an organ, came through vividly. Overall, the piece took on an intriguing gothic mystery that seemed interestingly new and completely right. The Neptune Finale, where the voices of cathedral choristers and lay priests carried the music an infinite distance, had never seemed so magical.
Mahler/Uchida Chamber Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★
Post-lockdown jitters may still be dampening public enthusiasm, but for certain artists those jitters just fade. The sold-out concert on Wednesday night at the Royal Festival Hall was a case in point. Onstage was the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which though young has already acquired the kind of aura possessed by far more venerable orchestras. And sitting in their midst at the piano, with her back to us, striking in blue, green, and silver shoes, was pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who also conducted the orchestra.
Uchida has recorded the complete Mozart piano concertos twice, and tonight’s performances of concertos 25 and 27 were filled with the wisdom of a lifetime. They were immaculate, discreet and full of that special pearly beauty of sound that has always been his trademark.
Some might say that your tone is invariably too soft, but softness encourages you to listen more deeply and notice small but revealing things. One was the moment in the first movement of 27 when the orchestra tiptoes into strange harmonic regions, an effect that Uchida magnified by gradually backing up the tempo and leaving what seemed like a long pause (although it was actually milliseconds) before it. . own alone. The result was that his own melody seemed to come from some lost and lonely region.
Another revealing moment was the very opening of the 25, which launches with the grandeur of a parade ground. Some players emphasize the big opening chords by pausing between them, others play them in a strict marching rhythm; Uchida and the orchestra somehow managed to do both at once.
The musicians gathered around the piano responded to Uchida’s compelling hand gestures with a charming, relaxed and refined playing, full of subtle touches of their own. In the first movement on the 27th, the interplay of flutists, oboes and bassoonists (unfortunately not mentioned in the program) was so delicious that I forgot about the soloist for a moment.
Wonderful as these performances were, they were dwarfed by the whirlwind of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, which came between the two concertos. This is music of white-hot intensity, with each instrumental part being most expressive at every turn. It may seem blocked and impenetrable, but in this astonishing performance, the furious complexity of the music, as well as its rare moments of quiet tenderness, shone with perfect lucidity and irresistible force. I