CBSO/Gardner – review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

If there's one English work from the first few decades of the 20th century that can stand alongside music composed elsewhere in Europe in the same period, it's Gustav Holst's The Planets. In Edward Gardner's concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, it followed Dukas's ravishing poème dansé La Péri and Szymanowski's Stabat Mater, and the connections between the three works were plain to hear. Though Szymanowski's music had become less headily exotic by the time of the Stabat Mater in 1929, the refined skeins of string chords and delicately coloured woodwind lines that underpin so much of its choral writing derive from French composers such as Debussy and Dukas. The Planets also references those two composers, as well as Stravinsky and Ravel, in what sometimes seems like a lexicon of early modernism.

Gardner's accounts of all three works were startlingly vivid, and every section of the CBSO played superbly for him. His account of La Péri, complete with the rather incongruous opening fanfare that some conductors omit, was the biggest treat, its textures glitteringly iridescent, its climaxes overwhelming. The Syzmanowski was held slightly in check and emerged as refined rather than robust, though the clarity of the soloists – soprano Sarah Fox, mezzo Pamela Helen Stephen and bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas – was obviously one of the benefits of Gardner's care for every texture and line. The CBSO Chorus even managed to get some of the words of the Polish text across.

There was a brisk directness about The Planets, too, as if Gardner were intent on demonstrating how fundamentally un-English Holst's score really is. A malfunctioning stop on the Symphony Hall's organ hardly detracted from the fierceness of Mars; Mercury's scherzo was, well, mercurial, and there was no scope in Jupiter for patriotic chest-beating. Even the entry of the wordless women's chorus at the end of Neptune, often rather approximate, was perfectly judged.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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