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Review: PROM 33 - THE PLANETS, Royal Albert Hall

Gustav Holst's famous suite was performed alongside works by Richard Strauss and Matthew Kaner

Review: PROM 33 - THE PLANETS, Royal Albert Hall

Review: PROM 33 - THE PLANETS, Royal Albert Hall With themes such as life, death, reflection and the nature of humanity, there's a risk that a Prom could end up feeling a touch on the heavy side - or overly gloomy - however, the pieces combine to provide as much light as shade across the course of the night.

Despite spanning approximately 130 years, you can hear a common thread between the three composers' work: classical, yet slightly daring - and making the very most of every individual element of the orchestra.

Last performed at the Proms in 2018, Richard Strauss wrote "Death and Transfiguration" as a follow-up to his tone poem Don Juan; these are two works of a young composer, exploring the life and death of the titular hero in one, and the inner thoughts of a man coming to terms with his own mortality in the other.

The piece is split into four distinct sections, tracing the journey from illness to death and beyond. As such, the mood, tempo and tone of the music varies significantly as it moves between the different parts - it's more contemplative and quiet as the individual succumbs to illness and then death, but in between those parts it's more explosive and dramatic, acknowledging the battle to live on. Both styles work exceptionally well in the setting of the Royal Albert Hall, going from deathly silence (aptly) to frenetic sound bouncing around the auditorium.

Matthew Kaner's piece, "Pearl", is a BBC commission and as such was making its world première at this event. It sets extracts of the Simon Armitage translation of the medieval poem, which sees a jeweller in mourning for his "pearl" (presumed to be his daughter) work through his grief, and take comfort that she is now at peace.

Unfortunately, as can often be the way, it is virtually impossible to make out what is being sung - though baritone Roderick Williams sings beautifully, English doesn't always come across that well in the operatic style, and the fact that different parts of the orchestra have very individual parts to play only hinders matters further. The text is printed in the programme, but that relies on every member of the audience buying one. If it were just about presenting the poem, I would rather hear the baritone parts spoken, backed by the chorus and orchestra.

The headline event of the night, however, did not disappoint. One or more movements of The Planets is probably the first piece of classical music that you will hear as a child (it certainly forms one of my early musical memories), and as such is incredibly special to hear performed live.

Holst was inspired by astrology in his characterising of each planet, though also brought the emotions of the First World War to life through music; "Mars" was written just prior to the outbreak of war, with "Venus" and "Jupiter" following later that year, and "Saturn", "Uranus" and "Neptune" were composed in 1915 - "Mercury" took a little longer to complete, with Holst finishing the instrumentation in 1917.

"The Planets" may have mainstream appeal now, but you can hear the influence of the likes of Stravinsky in places, which would have felt slightly daring at the time ("The Rite of Spring" is famously said to have sparked a riot on its Paris debut in 1913). The modern ear can also pick out Holst's own influence on current composers, the most obvious being John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack: "Mars" appropriately shows up in Darth Vader's own theme.

There is a lot going on in each movement, however it always pays dividends to keep one eye on the percussion section (David Hockings, Alex Neal, Joe Cooper, Joe Richards, Iris van den Bos, and Antoine Bedewi), as there are some truly dynamic moments in both "Mars" and "Jupiter"; the kettle drums and gong in particular get a good workout. A final highlight comes towards the end of "Neptune" when the women's choir joins in - ingeniously positioned up in the circle, to give a heightened sense of the ethereal, and provide a haunting end to the evening.

On the whole, a captivating night that showed off the spiritual quality of music. The Planets suite is a set of truly iconic compositions, and I can't think of a better environment in which to show them off.

The Proms are at the Royal Albert Hall until 10 September

Photo Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

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