Review: The Planets - CBSO, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

During every year that takes it towards its 2020 centenary, the CBSO looks back to the music of 100 years ago, and 1912 is certainly coming up with some rich pickings.

Rich to the point of decadence in the case of Dukas’ brief ballet ‘La Peri’, premiered in Paris in 1912 as a vehicle for the composer’s mistress.

The tale involves a beautiful fairy using all her wiles to retrieve the Flower of Immortality from the man who has seized it from her while she slept, and it draws from Dukas a charmed, mysterious other-world of perfumed sensuality.

It opens with a powerful brass fanfare to concentrate the listener’s mind, and Edward Gardner, bounding smilingly and confidently onto the stage launched immediately into it with a stunning, standing phalanx of CBSO brass.

Then, for the ensuing "poeme danse" the orchestra came up trumps with sinuous, writhing woodwind, strings voluptuously yearning and fluttering (the violins crowning the wonderful main theme with the most glorious rendering of its countermelody I have ever heard), percussion colourful and teasing.

The ending is quietly magical, as is that of Szymanowski’s ‘Stabat Mater’, a work whose medievalism actually imparts a timeless quality, and whose clearly-defined musical units make it cohere like a mosaic.

Gardner, such an enthusiast for Polish music, brought his natural operatic flair to this account, presiding over penetrating yet thoughtful contributions from vocal soloists Sarah Fox, Pamela Helen Stephen and Kostas Smoriginas, and relishing the legendary expertise of the CBSO Chorus, not only in the often Mussorgkyan and Stravinskyan choral textures, but also in their impeccable Polish delivery.

Wednesday was an evening with a few gremlins, however, with some audience-members unable to count up to six and therefore applauding over the tender beginning of the Szymanowski’s final movement; some premature applause elsewhere; even some conversation; and, most spectacularly, a prolonged mechanical after-sound from the portable organ console at the end of "Mars", the first movement of Holst’s ‘Planets’, meaning that poor Peter King had to sit disconsolately at his instrument for the rest of the proceedings.

Gardner’s response to this well-worn Suite was to bring a refreshing enthusiasm, newly-minting a work which is too often the victim of its own popularity.

Orchestral solos were given with urgent commitment, tutti were taut and well-marshalled, and the Chorus Ladies entered into the glacial shimmerings of "Neptune" so subtly that it was a pity that their eventual disappearance beyond the stars actually sounded so conclusive.

I think Holst’s imagination led him here to something which in reality is not possible.

Christopher Morley