Holst: The Planets (CD review)

Also, A Somerset Rhapsody; The Perfect Fool; Suite No. 2 for Military Band; St. Paul's Suite; Egdon Heath; Hymns from the Rig Veda; A Choral Fantasia. Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Norman Del Mar, Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra; Eric Banks, Central Band of the Royal Air Force; Sir Malcolm Sargent, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Charles Groves, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Janet Baker, Ian Partridge, Imogen Holst, English Chamber Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 27898 2 (2-disc set).

For a lot of us, British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) may seem like a one-shot wonder. Beyond his orchestral suite The Planets (1914-16), our remembrance of his works may get a little fuzzy. The fact is, the man composed over 200 pieces of music. This current two-disc collection from EMI gives us a representative sample of the man's output, with, of course The Planets as the centerpiece.

Let's start with The Planets, done up in fine style by the man who premiered it so many years before, Sir Adrian Boult. Sir Adrian recorded the work a number of times, the one we get here being his final word on the subject, coming around his ninetieth year. Needless to say, he brings to the subject a lifetime of experience, and it shows in a relaxed, unhurried, yet thoroughly authoritative performance.

Holst's idea in The Planets was to characterize each of seven movements in the suite after planetary signs of the zodiac.  I think people like program music because the tunes allow their imagination to soar, and The Planets does just that. Under Sir Adrian, "Mars, the Bringer of War" is urgent, a little menacing, and certainly energetic. "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" is, indeed, serene and lyrical. "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" is properly jaunty and playful, a perfect lead-in to "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity," which Sir Adrian never rushes but treats like a big, burly, loving uncle. Think of Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Present here. Then comes the otherworldly "Saturn, Bringer of Old Age," always Holst's favorite part of the suite; followed by "Uranus, the Magician," my own favorite part and well characterized by the conductor; concluding with "Neptune, the Mystic" and its wordless chorus slowly fading away uniquely into silence.

The accompanying works largely demonstrate Holst's facility using English folk music in his works, starting with A Somerset Rhapsody and the Brook Green Suite, pieces based almost entirely on folk tunes and beautifully realized by maestro Norman Del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Next are The Perfect Fool, music from Holst's opera arranged into a suite, and Egdon Heath, a tribute to the darkly austere moods of Thomas Hardy, both done by Andre Previn and the London Symphony. Then there are the changes of pace: the Suite No. 2, again folk songs but done up for military band and realized here by Wing Commander Eric Banks and the Central Band of the Royal Air Force; followed by the St. Paul's Suite, which Holst wrote for the orchestra of the school where he was Director of Music, played by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic. The program ends with two choral pieces: hymns from the Rig Veda (Group 2), performed by Sir Charles Groves, the London Symphony Chorus, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra; and A Choral Fantasia, performed by Janet Baker, Ian Partridge, the Purcell Singers, and the English Chamber Orchestra lead by the composer's daughter, composer and conductor Imogen Holst.

EMI recorded the main item, The Planets, with the London Philharmonic in 1978, not long after Sir Adrian's previous stereo recording of it with the New Philharmonia, also for EMI. The sound is typical of what we came to know from Boult's LPO recordings: It's warm, a little soft most of the time, slightly harsh in the loudest passages, with a modest degree of low-end overhang veiling the midrange. Deepest bass is fine and dynamics are wide, but the recording as a whole is not quite in the demonstration class, the overall effect one seemingly designed for pleasant, easy listening rather than anything truly exceptional. The other items, which range in recording dates from 1964 to 1984, vary somewhat in sonic quality but mostly sound good, with the Previn/LSO recordings standing out for their clarity and impact.


1 comment:

  1. All well-raked from EMI's archives and good to see in circulation. I always found The Choral Fantasia with Baker et al one of the most revealing performances and pioneering in its original WRC setting on LP (with Finzi's Natalis) but you are right about the Previn (and his account of The Planets has just re-emerged in my household in a very good LP copy from a charity shop which a mate thoughtfully ferreted out for me - again a great performance).


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa