Holst: The Planets (UltraHD CD review)

Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. LIM UHD 058.

Between 1914 and 1916, the years of “The Great War,” English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why the first two segments are about “War” and “Peace.” He named each movement after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn’t really describe either the zodiac signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human spirit.

Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performance and recorded the work regularly, his final disc for EMI in 1979 one of my favorites. However, I actually prefer Andre Previn’s 1974 EMI recording of it with the LSO even more than any of Boult’s, so personal preference is still a big part of the equation.

Which brings us, finally, to this 1986 Telarc recording by Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Apparently, both Previn and Telarc thought so highly of the conductor’s EMI analogue performance, they agreed to do it again, this time digitally. The thing is, even though the sound is digital, it isn’t necessarily better, nor is the performance.

The music begins on an auspicious note as Previn and the RPO introduce us to “Mars, the Bringer of War” with much menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Is Previn’s rendition this time more compelling than what he gave us earlier? I don’t thing so; there is just that nth degree of tension missing. Yet it’s still better than most such readings.

In the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the RPO’s playing is quite lovely, and for me it is the high point of Previn’s interpretation of the suite. It’s sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We hear echoes here also of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” written a few years before, and Previn was always a subtle and effective interpreter of Vaughan Williams.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is a “nimble scherzo,” as the booklet note points out, which provides a little excitement after the relative calm of Venus. Be that as it may, Previn’s rendering does not seem as light or as fleet as in his EMI recording.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” follows, a big, boisterous Bacchanal, which is almost as much fun this second time around for Previn as it was the first time. Still, it seems to dance in a more carefree fashion in the earlier recording, this one a tad more rigid.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was Holst’s personal favorite section of the suite, and Previn gives it appropriate weight. I’m not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it. In any case, it does have some lovely lyrical contrasts that Previn is more than happy to emphasize.

After that comes “Uranus, the Magician,” the section of Previn’s ‘74 disc I often use as a demo piece for friends. It has everything an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to loudest fortes; it exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra’s capabilities. As good as the LIM/Telarc disc is, I remain an admirer of the EMI presentation. Oddly, where Previn is slower in every other movement for Telarc, in this movement he’s faster and seems a little more matter-of-fact than before.

The suite ends with “Neptune, the Mystic,” its wordless female chorus (Women of the Brighton Festival Chorus) fading off into silence at the end. Previn is properly ethereal as the piece concludes in the most-distant reaches of space.

LIM’s remaster of Telarc’s Planets is quite good and an improvement over the standard Telarc product. However, that doesn’t mean it is “better” than Previn’s EMI analogue recording of a decade earlier. Telarc recorded the music in Watford Town Hall, London, in 1986; LIM remastered it in 2011 using their Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering process, releasing the album in 2012. When I say the digital production isn’t inevitably better than the EMI analogue recording, I mean that different listeners will have different standards for judging the results. Since none of us can compare the sound of either recording to the actual experiences of 1974 and 1986, a person’s appreciation for one recording or the other becomes a matter of subjective judgment. Which one sounds more “real,” more “hi-fi,” or more “audiophile” can be very personal concerns.

The LIM/Telarc remastering is surely smoother and more dynamic than the EMI disc I own (itself a Japanese Toshiba-EMI remastering from 2005). Nevertheless, the EMI is more transparent, with marginally greater spatiality, dimensionality; the LIM/Telarc sonics are slightly thicker, fatter, heavier, warmer, and softer, the acoustic environment of each recording location no doubt the cause for the differences. Both discs exhibit excellent bass properties and quick transient response. One thing is certain: If you are already a fan of the Telarc recording, the engineers at LIM have improved it, so it won’t disappoint you. It’s not a huge, knock-your-socks-off improvement, but it’s noticeable. Meanwhile, perhaps someday LIM will approach EMI to remaster some of their classic material; I hope they do, and I hope they start with Previn’s ‘74 recording.

Anyway, LIM sweeten the deal with a handsome, high-gloss, hardcover package; a twenty-page bound booklet of notes; and a static-proof inner sleeve. It’s not cheap, but at least the company gives you your money’s worth. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


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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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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa