The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has always been something of a scrappy underdog in the British orchestral world. When Sir Thomas Beecham set out to start the orchestra from scratch in 1946 (his second successful endeavor in orchestra-making after the London Philharmonic Orchestra), there were many who doubted he could secure the players in those lean post-war years. “I always get the players,” he fired back at his critics. “Among other considerations, they are so good they refuse to play under anybody but me.”
Since its 1950 stateside debut with Beecham, the RPO has maintained a reputation as a touring orchestra. And so it was a pleasure to go out and show support for this orchestra-that-could this Monday evening for its first Carnegie Hall engagement in twenty years and the concluding evening of the first major stateside tour of a European orchestra following the lockdowns of 2020–21.
On the docket were Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (1946), Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (1919), and Holst’s Planets (1914–17). The RPO’s freshly appointed music director, Vasily Petrenko, was the maestro for the evening, with the Austrian-Iranian cellist Kian Soltani in the soloist’s chair for the Elgar.
Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the tale of a Suffolk fisherman’s attempt to vindicate himself after a tragic boating accident claims the life of his apprentice. In these instrumental interludes, however, Britten gives us little hint of these personalities. Instead, he evokes setting and atmosphere: “Dawn,” “Sunday morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm,” as the four movements are called.
No complaints can be registered about Petrenko and company’s steady navigation of the suite. The orchestra’s basses surged with intensity beneath a placid but tense surface of wispy strings at the opening of “Dawn”; timpani and large chimes heralded a change in the weather with the onset of the agitated “Sunday morning”; a lovely though brief respite was found in the soft strings of “Moonlight,” distracted by an anxious xylophone motif; finally, the furor of “Storm” broke loose and swept all away in the finale. A parallel is with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, another pelagic suite in four movements. But whereas Scheherezade gives us a serene calm following the final tempest, “Four Sea Interludes” leaves us dashed upon the rocks.
The audience was surely most eager to hear Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a popular piece with a fervent following. Devotees of the concerto will remember that it was the watershed recording by Jacqueline du Pré that vaulted this neglected piece (and the young cellist) to massive popularity in the 1960s. The twenty-nine-year-old Soltani is the principal cellist for the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra and, it turns out, a protégé of that orchestra’s conductor, Daniel Barenboim, du Pré’s husband until the time of her death in 1987.
To discuss the concerto, we should understand that it is a work of Elgar’s late period and is colored by the composer’s lifelong struggle with depression. It is elegiac, but in the right hands it bursts alight with passion. It shocked audiences who expected the pomp and circumstance of Elgar’s earlier output; it flopped, famously, at its debut. In this concerto, pomp has left the building and circumstance holds court alone. “A man’s attitude to life” was Elgar’s laconic response when asked to characterize it.
To the chagrin of cellists everywhere who strive to make a name with the Elgar, du Pré’s precedent hangs over any performance of the piece. Few concerti are more difficult to separate from a soloist’s legacy. With her searing, intensely physical tone on the cello, ricocheting like a gunshot across the opening bars, and her passionate, all-consuming stage presence, du Pré indelibly became the concerto. Soltani faced a double precedent that evening at Carnegie Hall, for it was on this very stage that du Pré made her United States debut with the concerto in 1965.
To my ear, Soltani’s playing was enervated in the first movement; amongst the RPO’s rich midrange (violas deserving particular commendation), the movement’s trademark crescendi for the solo cello, which should rise like lumps in the throat, felt swallowed up. While du Pré’s opening salvo was riddled with angst, Soltani’s seemed resigned. While du Pré’s playing burned with an autumnal flame, Soltani’s failed to rise to the emotional occasion. Soltani hit his stride, I felt, for the remaining three movements, which are on the whole more tranquil until the final recapitulation of the opening theme. His restrained style was suited to these passages.
Perhaps du Pré editorialized in her Elgar. Perhaps Soltani presents a more refined, elegant approach to the concerto. “A man’s attitude to life” is certainly an equivocal statement on Elgar’s part. To me, if it points to anything, it suggests a certain world-weariness that must be exorcized through the music. Exorcize it du Pré did, and she was not out of line in doing so. Listen as far back as the startlingly clear 1928 recording by Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself at the helm for a blueprint of how the movement’s pathos should be handled.
A loud ovation called Soltani back to the stage to present an encore, his own arrangement for cello ensemble of the “Introduction” from Shostakovich’s suite of music for the movie The Gadfly. This happens to be a favorite of mine. It is not meant to aspire to anything beyond mood music for a film, but Shostakovich had a great ear for a melody when he worked in a lighter mode. A curious pairing with the Elgar, but appreciated.
After intermission came Holst’s Planets, a set of seven tone poems, each wedded to a particular planet and its astrological character. From the unrelenting assault of “Mars, the Bringer of War” to the frolicking hymn section of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” this music is inscribed upon the cultural consciousness of the West from the soundtracks of popular sci-fi films to hymns at British royal weddings.
The RPO delivered a textbook runthrough of the suite. My interest was drawn to an appropriately brutal “Mars,” rendered here with a particularly mechanical, lockstep rhythm—as, I think, Holst intended; a bright and sunny “Jupiter,” a highlight for the RPO’s brass section; and of course the strange, rarefied air of “Neptune,” which concludes the suite with the sound of a wordless female choir, placed offstage, fading away into silence. Many necks craned fruitlessly to catch a view of the invisible chorus. For an encore, “The Dance of the Tumblers” was selected from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet The Snow Maiden—effervescently played, though a befuddling punctuation to the solemn denouement of “Neptune.”
It occurs to me: I like The Planets. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that there is something artificial about it, perhaps because of its esoteric yet strict program. I don’t mean this as an insult; the pieces are finely made, though I don’t think they can qualify the work, lacking as it does a certain humane character, as great art. Great craft, at least: great, striving experiments in color and mood, and commendable as such. This craftedness is perhaps one of the secrets of The Planets’ enduring popular appeal and its malleability in the hands of other composers and musicians who have ensured its long afterlife in myriad film and popular music adaptations.
How much has changed since those bleak days of World War I when Holst composed this music. How differently we listen to it now. Holst, of course, could have hardly foreseen this when he set out to compose the suite. Indeed, his concerns for the program of this work were more astrological and less astronomical than we realize. For we forget how abstract and distant the actual planets still were in the consciousness of that time. Space travel was then a thing of fantasy and minor speculation, now made real and increasingly mundane. It is odd to look back at this music with an intervening hundred years of accumulated exploration, documentation, and imagination of these distant objects. The planets have grown closer to us. Perhaps The Planets has drifted further away.