Harding, CSO deliver sonic spectacle, celestial mystery with “The Planets”

Fri Nov 03, 2023 at 2:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Daniel Harding conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Holst’s The Planets Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

This week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program brought one populist showpiece and two genuine rarities. Unusually, the famous work was by Gustav Holst and the rarities were by Brahms and Schumann.

Daniel Harding was on the podium Thursday night in his first CSO stand since 2006. (More recently he led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on tour here in 2019.) If the performances overall proved mixed, the British conductor scored impressively in the evening’s main work, Holst’s The Planets.

Frederick Stock and the CSO gave the American premiere of The Planets in 1921, and Thursday night’s superbly realized performance reminded one of what a multi-textured and rewarding work this is. 

Written in 1914-16 at the peak of World War I, The Planets is an outlier in Holst’s output, which is largely centered on smaller-scale wind music. Scored for huge orchestra, the English composer’s suite paints seven planets in as many movements with each embodying a defined musical character. Holst declined to set music for Earth, and Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930. (Colin Matthews has composed Pluto, the Renewer, as an addendum to Holst’s Planets, and Simon Rattle has included it in his recording.)

The most boldly scored sections came off with all due power and dramatic impact. Harding built the malign, relentless march of “Mars, the Bringer of War” inexorably, culminating in a massive, jarring climax. The violent, grinding chords of the coda were equally overwhelming, bombastic and unsettling as intended.

The benign horn solo and four flutes of the ensuing “Venus” provided welcome cooling balm. Here Harding’s light touch felt just right, not making the “Bringer of Peace” saccharine, and letting the music flow in a relaxed pastoral idyll, with liquid grace notes from the celesta.

The two scherzos, “Mercury” and “Uranus” went with ample vitality if stinting a bit on the charm and humor. The latter “Magician” was duly boisterous in this galumphing Sorcerer’s Apprentice knockoff but rather straight-faced; it’s too bad the crazed organ glissando got buried by the orchestra.

The bumptious bonhomie of “Jupiter”—the most “English” of Holst’s planetary creations—came off superbly, however, with Harding and the seven horns mining a rich vein of nobilmente in the Elgarian middle section.

As mentioned, there were balancing issues at times, especially in the quieter passages, that should have been sorted out. But Harding got all of the crucial things right, not least in the two most challenging sections.

In “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” Harding directed the music with great skill, charting the irradiating tread of the throbbing two-note motif into a terrifying outburst, followed by solace and acceptance, as church bells beckon one towards the abyss. (In addition to its influence on Bernard Herrmann’s film scores, it’s striking that this movement seems to become more meaningful the older one gets.)

The Planets concludes with “Neptune, the Mystic,” one of those finales that—like the end of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony—almost never come off successfully in live performance.

This time it did, and for once the sense of austere mystery and the vast expanse of space were richly manifest. The offstage voices were ideally placed and the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus stayed admirably on pitch; as Harding patiently drew down the long diminuendo, the wordless vocalise slowly faded away to imperceptibility in a magical and haunting coda. 

Kudos to Harding, the women singers, and guest chorus director Jenny Wong for handling this effect so adroitly. The orchestra was at its finest in this performance across all sections with the brass in particular making the most of Holst’s most flamboyant music.

The first half brought a pair of rarities from two cornerstone German composers. Sadly, neither was as successful as the Holst, perhaps due in part to getting the short end of rehearsals with a monster like The Planets on the program.

Schumann’s Overture to Manfred was written for a theatrical performance of the Byron-inspired play. The quiet ending of this late work likely accounts for the paucity of performances, but this is a dramatic, well-crafted piece that deserves more hearings than it gets. Thursday night’s performance failed to provide worthy advocacy, undone by unkempt textures and Harding’s hectoring direction and stilted tempo fluctuations.

The same largely applied to the ensuing performance of Brahms’ Schicksalslied, which fared no better. There is lovely music in this “Song of Destiny,” a choral setting of a Friedrich Hölderlin poem,  yet but one could hardly hear it in this garrulous performance. Here too, Harding’s over-moulding of phrases and tempos felt the opposite of natural and the choral singing was stronger on volume than finesse or expressive poise.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and  Tuesday. cso.org

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4 Responses to “Harding, CSO deliver sonic spectacle, celestial mystery with “The Planets””

  1. Posted Nov 03, 2023 at 3:14 pm by Dan L

    I agree with your opinion of Harding’s conducting, but I thought the orchestra was quite sloppy compared to their normal standard, similar to last Thursday’s Mahler 1. Both in Mercury and also Jupiter there were several moments in which they fell apart and you saw the conductor give a larger cue at the end of the section to glue everyone together again. I realize it’s not an easy piece, but considering how many times they’ve played it and how they’re the CSO, you’d expect better.

  2. Posted Nov 03, 2023 at 3:28 pm by Thomas Trimborn

    Lawrence Johnson’s review of this performance could not be more spot on. The Planets is simply a masterpiece and grows in stature as time goes by. The magnificent CSO in all sections across the board performed at a level near to perfection. Any conductor standing in front of such a grand orchestra certainly must feel humbled and challenged at the same time to bring his or her best efforts and insight to the music. Bravo to all!

  3. Posted Nov 04, 2023 at 11:13 pm by Andy Dogan

    I attended Saturday night, and it may have been where I was sitting, but I felt like the orchestra never got below mezzo piano dynamically, and as another commenter said there were a couple places in Mercury that were dangerously close to falling apart. I’ve seen Harding achieve masterful results with orchestras in Europe but I did not sense a connection between musicians and conductor in this performance.

  4. Posted Nov 06, 2023 at 11:16 am by John Humanski

    I attended the Friday performance.

    I agree that the Brahms and Schumann were lacking something. Admittedly, I am not a fan of either composer so my impressions might be biased.

    The Holst was also a mixed bag. I felt Mars was lacking drive but the remainder of the Planets was exceptional. I also agree with other commenters that the orchestra seemed to be playing on the edge of complete disaster but it made for an exciting performance.

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