Holst’s The Planets, reimagined for organ, plus February’s top classical concerts

Out of this world: John Challenger played Holst's The Planets on Salisbury Cathedral organ - Finnbarr Webster

Out of this world: John Challenger played Holst’s The Planets on Salisbury Cathedral organ – Finnbarr Webster

The Planets, John Challenger (organ), Salisbury Cathedral ★★★★☆

Holst’s Planets suite may be the greatest British orchestral piece ever written, but it doesn’t seem to have any strings attached. The eternal human fascination with the planets keeps it fresh, as does the undoubted genius of music itself.

On Saturday night at Salisbury Cathedral, Holst’s masterpiece underwent an interesting restoration, in the form of a new arrangement for the cathedral’s own organ, built by Henry Willis, the most famous organ maker in this country, in 1877. In the darkness of the great body – only lighting sparsely colored for the atmosphere bringing the eye up to the height of the vaulted ceiling, and with planetary images projected on a screen – the human imagination was certainly brighter than the prosaic light of a concert hall.

All this brought the mind up and out, into space. Leading the other way, towards the human significance of the planets, there were short poems spoken by their author Martin Figura between the movements that reflected on the way planetary influences weave themselves into everyday aspects of our lives. This felt appropriate, as there are plenty of everyday human expressions in Holst’s piece; think of those fun field-parade adventures in Jupiter, so far removed from the icy mysteries of Saturn and Neptune.

This imaginative world seems so close to Holst’s colorful orchestration that it is hard to imagine that the organ could recreate it properly. But this new version, made by John Challenger, the Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, was a resounding success. Challenger set himself up, and thanks to strategically placed cameras looking over his shoulders at his hands, and also at his feet at the pedals, we could see as well as hear how ingenious he was to fix. Those hands were constantly drifting between the four manuals (keyboards) of the organ to find Holst’s small color changes, and sometimes pulling a stop here or pressing a piston there. It was a great achievement of ambition.

As for the music, he took on interesting new colors, or maybe old colors to say. The famous big melody in Jupiter was more like a hymn (which was eventually made); the eerie sound of “vox humana” stops cast a different kind of mystery on Saturn. Scary sounds like a sprite of Mercury, which you’d think would fit your organ, came alive. Overall, the piece got an interesting Gothic mystery that looked interestingly new and completely right. The territory of Neptune has never looked so magical, where the voices of the cathedral choir and alto lay vicars channeled the music into infinite space.

Mitsuko Uchida conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall - Geoffroy Schied

Mitsuko Uchida conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall – Geoffroy Schied

Mahler/Uchida Chamber Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★

Post-lockdown nerves may still be dampening the enthusiasm of the audience, but for some artists those nerves only melt away for some artists. The sold out concert on Wednesday night at the Royal Festival Hall was a case in point. On stage was the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which has acquired the kind of aura of much more impressive orchestras even though it is already young. Sitting among them at the piano, and back to us, resplendent 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 this evening’s performances of the 25th and 27th concertos are filled with the wisdom of life. They were immaculate, understated and drenched in that special pearly beauty that had always been her trademark.

Some might say her tone is too soft, but the softness encourages you to listen more deeply and notice small but telling things. One of the moments was the first movement of the 27th when the orchestra moves towards strange harmonic regions, an effect that Uchida enhanced by gradually pulling back the tempo, leading to a huge break. was there (though it was actually milliseconds) in front of her. individual self. The result was that her own music seemed to come from some lost and lonely region.

Another significant moment was the opening of the 25th, which sails majestically onto the parade ground. Some performers emphasize the large open chords by pausing between them, some play them at a strict marching pace; Uchida and the orchestra managed to do both at once.

The players gathered around the piano responded to Uchida’s urgent hand gestures as they played with beautiful, relaxed fine-tuning, full of their own calm. In the first movement on the 27th, the interplay of the flute, oboe and bassoon players (unfortunately unnamed in the program) was so delicious that I forgot the soloist for a moment.

Although these performances were impressive, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Schoenberg’s whirlwind, which came between the two concertos, overshadowed them. This is the music of white-hot intensity, in which every instrumental part is maximally expressive at every moment. It may seem clogged and inevitable, but in this wonderful performance the fierce complexity of the music as well as its rare moments of quiet silence shined with perfect clarity and irresistible force. IH

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