Music of the spheres

Pluto The Renewer | Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
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The Independent Culture

It's official: there is another planet. Pluto, actually discovered in plenty of time for Gustav Holst to incorporate it into his orchestral The Planets suite (had the thought occurred to him) has been left in silent orbit, uncomposed and unheard for over 70 years. Now it has a title, "Pluto the Renewer", and its own music, tagged on to Holst's seven astrological movements.

Pluto came about as a kind of farewell from the Hallé Orchestra's outgoing music director, Kent Nagano. Never one to make a small gesture when a big statement would be more impressive, he made sure his final concert reached out to the universe. And who better to bring his airy idea to earth than the composer Colin Matthews, who worked with Holst's daughter and had no doubts that she would be spinning in her grave at his cheek.

In anyone else's hands, the idea of the new movement might have seemed grotesque. Hadn't Holst himself waited specifically until the idea of each planet suggested its character to him? And how could anything possibly follow the delicate closing bars of his last movement, "Neptune the Mystic"? With unaccompanied women's voices circling ethereally in the galaxy, listeners are left holding their collective breath at the glimpse of infinity Holst offered.

How could Matthews meet that challenge? This was no mere reconstruction, after all, put together with the help of a dead composer's sketches and notes. In the event, Neptune faded almost imperceptibly into the distance and, like a flickering candle stuttering into life again, the orchestra started up again, Matthews' score whirling into life.

Solar winds were apparently his starting-point and, in a new section every bit as admirably economic and tasefully restrained in its brilliant use of orchestral colour, it really did seem for a moment as if Holst, from a distinctively 21st-century perspective, had dictated the circling sounds of this new planet. Far from adopting pastiche, Matthews has got both under the skin of the original score - to the point that thematic material from some of the previous planets makes fragmentary appearances as if by chance - and given Pluto a place up there among the stars.

In his subtlety of shading and dynamics and attention to clarity and balance, Nagano pointed up all the important detail of these novel few minutes. And with Matthews' reintroduction of the wordless women's chorus last heard disappearing with Neptune, the end of "Pluto" lacks nothing of the magic and atmosphere of the original Planets ending. Matthews needn't worry, Holst won't be coming back to haunt him.

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