RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at National Concert Hall, on 28 September 2018

This evening’s concert is one of celebration and commemoration. As Lyric FM’s Michael Lee informs us, this evening marks (almost) the centenary of The Planets (first performed on 29 September 1918). It is, however, an occasion tinged with sadness, as the performance is dedicated to long-time orchestra member Máire Larchet, who had joined the orchestra in its early days as the Radió Éireann Symphony Orchestra.

This evening’s programme boasts the presence of two iconic works, and the world premiere of another. Holst’s The Planets and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor are no strangers to orchestral enthusiasts in the audience, yet also retain a familiarity that goes beyond the bounds of the concert hall, having appeared in and influenced countless film and video game scores.

The opening number is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser. Instantly evocative of the cinematic horror, J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (arr. Leopold Stokowski) seems to be a perfect seasonal choice for the lead up to Halloween. Stokowski’s arrangement nods here and there to the work’s origins as an organ piece, with low register tremolo strings and timpani rolls evoking its familiar rumbling bass. Although the work’s filmic reputation is macabre in the extreme, it does have lighter moments, ascending and descending figures passed between flutes and violins in a lyrical dialogue. Watching the orchestra, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that the work was originally written for only one pair of hands (and feet).

José Serebrier’s conducting style is understated throughout. His baton moves in short, precise motions, with the occasional punchy hand gesture or wiggle of the fingers indicating moments of greater tension. His manner is effervescent, and his interactions with orchestra and audience are tinged with an enthusiasm and jollity that is a pleasure to watch.

This event sees the world premiere of Serebrier’s Symphonic B A C H Variations for Piano and Orchestra. Contrary to what one might assume from the title, the work has little to do with J.S. Bach (or even his sons) and refers instead to the musical cryptogram comprising those notes. Encompassing four movements (‘two fast, two slow’ as Serebrier tells us), the opening is dramatic, engaging low strings, brass, and a militant snare ostinato. The fast movements are replete with the rapid building and release of tension, with screaming brass, cymbal clashes, and alarm-like motifs passed from section to section and section to soloist seeing pianist Alexandre Kantorow and orchestra alike get a thorough workout. The final two movements take on a more lyrical character, emphasising strings and piano.

The concert draws to a close with Holst’s The Planets. In tonight’s performance, is the case in observational astronomy, some planets shine brighter than others. ‘Mars, The Bringer of War’, sees the National Symphony Orchestra at their raucous best, complete with thunderous timpani, staccato violins and brass, and the punchiest of dynamic transitions. The following movements (‘Venus, the bringer of Peace’, and ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’) see a contrast to the bombastic opening, while ‘Jupiter’ is perhaps the strongest of the movements, seeing the juxtaposition of the heroic and the jovial in Holst’s writing. Accompanied by a merrily plodding tuba, weighty themes delivered by the brass become whimsical when passed to the glockenspiel and woodwind. The final movement, ‘Neptune, the Mystic’, seems to suffer in comparison with the unabashed verve with which the earlier movements were tackled. Its aura of mystery depends on the gentle combination of harp and celesta, along with the wordless intonations of the Ladies of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, and the atmosphere is stymied by a sense of imbalance between choir and orchestra. The movement’s ending is not quite effective as it might be, coming to an abrupt halt, rather than fading into the ether. It may not have been the mysterious parting that Holst might have wished for, but the audience are charmed nonetheless, and respond with hearty applause.

 

Programme

J.S. Bach arr. Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

José Serebrier, Symphonic BACH Variations for Piano and Orchestra

Gustav Holst, The Planets

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