Music review: RSNO, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Under the baton of John Wilson, the RSNO gave an enthralling performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets at the Usher Hall, writes Susan Nickalls

RSNO: The Planets, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

The climax of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s sold-out concert featuring works by three English composers was Holst’s magnificent suite of tone poems, The Planets. It’s surprising to note that despite the veracity of the snare and kettle drum-driven clash of fighting armies in the explosive opener Mars, the Bringer of War, Holst wrote the work before the outbreak of the First World War. Conductor John Wilson brilliantly deployed his extra orchestral forces, including the organ, to evoke the terrifying sound of battle. By contrast, Venus, the Bringer of Peace was a landscape of swirling flutes and twinkling harps and celeste.

This enthralling performance underlined the distinct musical personalities of the subsequent planets with the offstage sopranos and altos of the RSNO Chorus adding an ethereal quality to the finale, Neptune, the Mystic. However the sense of otherworldliness promised in John Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite, especially given the composer’s interest in pagan magic and witchcraft, never materialised. More a dreamy pastorale, Wilson and the orchestra teased apart the gorgeous textures of this beautifully scored piece with its cosy horn tones and breezy strings.

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The RSNO PIC: Chris HartThe RSNO PIC: Chris Hart
The RSNO PIC: Chris Hart

There was a strong sense of storytelling in Alice Coote’s performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, settings of five short poems for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. All the Elgarian hallmarks of stately strings and swelling woodwind flourishes were there along with his ability to pull the listener in by starting his works as if picking up the threads of a conversation. Sea Slumber Song for instance begins with a short upward sweep of notes. Coote has a warm, honeyed voice but at times it lacked tonal consistency in some of the lengthier phrases such as in Sabbath Morning at Sea. More impressive were the shorter pieces, In Haven (Capri) written by Elgar’s wife, and the hypnotic pulse of Where Corals Lie.