Review - RPO’s The Planets at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform The Planets
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform The Planets

One of the heaviest, toughest and least enjoyable pieces of work I ever had to do as a student at school was to study Holst’s The Planets for A Level music.

The experience of picking over the bones of a weighty score, analysing every motif, every instrument and every key change made me run for the nearest car boot sale to sell my CD copy during the summer holidays of that final sixth form year.

But a couple of decades later - yesterday (Sunday) to be precise - I found myself at the Royal & Derngate enjoying an evening of music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), which not only included a rendition of The Planets, but a host of other orchestral works which have somehow become linked with the concept of space.

And it seems that time does heal all ills because I can now enjoy The Planets for the brilliance of its emotional power, and not because I have to learn it.

The concert, entitled The Planets: An HD Odyssey, was a completely different performance than any I have previously seen, as the music was played alongside a 24-foot long screen showing high definition planetary images of NASA’s exploration of the solar system.

The addition of images from space shown as the backdrop to Holst’s incredible musical illustration seemed to take the music to another level.

The piece is always strongly evocative, ranging from the driving string sections of Mars, the Bringer of War, to the lighter treatment of Mercury, the Winged Messenger, so I did wonder whether the images would add anything to the performance.

However, the photography and footage shown was so incredible in revealing how far our knowledge of the universe has developed since the time of Gustav Holst, it was impossible not to feel it made a great accompaniment.

For a musician, The Planets is a challenging piece to play. Holst not only employs a vast array of instruments, but he also uses them to full capacity. For example, harpists provide light, fluttering passages in the Venus section, but are also called upon to provide the plodding, heavy beat of the sedate Saturn.

As ever, the RPO rose to the challenge, with each of its sections supplying faultless, expressive performances under the leadership of conductor Robert Ziegler.

Other performances during the evening included Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, Bach’s Prelude And Fugue in D Minor and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7: Allegretto.

For me, one highlight of the evening was the RPO’s robust performance of John Williams’ Star Wars, which brought smiles from many in the audience while assertively proving that music penned for cinema is definitely not the poor relation.